Danielle Staub of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” has constantly feuded with her co-stars, particularly after they confronted her about a true crime book that reveals her checkered past. In the tell-all memoir “The Naked Truth,” Staub opens up about her scandalous history. In this excerpt, she writes about being adopted and what she wants from her birth mother.
Chapter one: Life before birth
I didn’t need my mother and father to tell me I was adopted. I figured it out for myself. When I was five years old, I sat down on the couch in the living room and said matter-of-factly to my mother, “I don’t look like you. I don’t act like you. I don’t talk like you. I don’t look like anyone in our family. Who am I?”
I was born in the summer of 1962, in the United States.
It was the era of JFK, the year of the Rolling Stones’ first performance, and the year Marilyn Monroe suffered an untimely death. It was also the year my mother traveled all the way from Italy to America to give birth to me.
Everything I understand to be true about my birth family is just stories I’ve heard. I haven’t been able to confirm anything — not even by birth mother’s name. As the story was told to me, my birth mother grew up in an extremely strict Sicilian household. She was born into a big family of devout Catholics. In those days, especially in Italy, the rules of the Catholic Church were extremely strict and unquestioningly followed, almost like laws. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies were highly unacceptable. If a woman had a child out of wedlock, she and her entire family would be looked down upon and ostracized from the community; they would even be excommunicated from the Church.
So, when my mother got pregnant as an unmarried teen, it created much chaos and dissension within her immediate family. The Russos (my biological mother’s maiden name was Russo, from what I was told) were a family of much power and wealth and social status in Sicily — so much so that I have been told that the family was “connected” in the true sense of the word.
My mother was fourteen years old when she met my birth father, who was then nineteen. They had consensual and unprotected sex. The result: me. This love affair between them caused an uproar within my mother’s family. Once my mother’s situation came to light, my grandparents concluded that my mother would have to leave Italy as soon as her pregnancy started showing. My aunt would escort her to the United States to give birth to me. If the pregnancy wasn’t handled privately and secretly, it would be a disgrace to the entire Russo family. As a mother of two daughters, I wonder what my grandmother’s position was in all of this. Why didn’t she stop my grandfather from sending my mother to America and making her give me away? Did she even have a say, or was she helpless because she was living in a society dominated by men? How did my mother’s family explain to everyone in Italy why my mother and my aunt were going away to America for all those months? Is all of this true? I have so many questions about this aspect of my family — my existence — that may never be answered.
I was told that my father was actually killed for getting my mother pregnant. Killed? If it’s true, I’d have to think that my father’s murder was a reflection of the ignorance and tendency toward violence that was prevalent in that part of Italy at that time, and the hypocrisy of his death is quite clear to me: you gain one life but lose another for no valid reason.
In a scene in The Godfather, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) kills a crooked police sergeant in New York and goes to Italy until things cool off back in America. While he’s there, Michael walks the streets of his Sicilian hometown, Corleone, with two bodyguards who are both carrying guns. He notices that hardly any men are walking the streets. “Where have all the men gone?” Michael asks his bodyguards. One responds, “They are all dead from vendettas.” The three continue walking down the street, and Michael sees Apollonia for the first time and is impressed by her freshness and beauty. A bodyguard cautions Michael, “In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.” Apparently Sicily at that time was a Wild West show with almost no governing laws. Danger was all around in the form of men and women alike, especially when it came to personal relationships.
The first person who told me that my father was killed was a family friend who looked into my family history for me when I was not quite ten years old. I was shocked. Over the years, I have buried the pain and disappointment of that revelation in a fantasy that my birth mother and father had a genuine, passionate, one-of-a-kind true love that you only read about in romance novels — a modern Romeo and Juliet. They were forbidden to see each other by their families, and like most things that are forbidden, their seeing each other became more enticing and exciting for this young, daring couple. They couldn’t help but taste the forbidden fruit of their love, and nobody would stop their passion. I imagine that they met secretly in romantic places such as vast fields and beautiful gardens to consummate their relationship. I know it sounds like storybook imagery, but it’s important for me to believe in this. I hold on to it to this day.
When I was five, my mother confirmed that I was adopted. While it was healthy for me to know this, I was somewhat abused by the other kids in my kindergarten class for being adopted. Eventually the teasing subsided, and by the second grade I found myself hanging out with the rich kids. I should never really have fit in with these kids, but somehow I mixed with them comfortably. I seemed to instinctively know etiquette. I knew how to behave in a nice home — places that smelled good and had expensive furnishings and attractive artwork. It seemed natural for me to be in that kind of environment, which was the complete opposite of how I felt in my house. This wasn’t because I felt I deserved to be rich, but in my own home I felt like an outsider, never in the right place at the right time. We were poor — really poor.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I would often dream as a young child, and my dreams were vivid images of what I had hoped my life would actually be like growing up. I would dream that I was the belle of the ball, even royalty. In some of my dreams, I was surrounded by vast orchards chock-full of beautiful apples, grapes, and berries. The aromas I imagined were so pure, I thought they smelled the way heaven would. I played in green fields and ran free in these dreams. I skipped without a care in the world as the warm breezes blew through my hair. I was surrounded by family, and nobody seemed to ever have to work or worry. We ate amazing home-cooked meals and we all laughed, and I was an important part of that big, loving family. I would sit on my grandfather’s lap and everyone would cherish and fawn over me. Everyone in these dreams didn’t have distinct faces, but they always had bright smiles that were big, wide, and full of life. I was the only one in my dreams who had an actual face.
I would have these dreams almost every night. I suppose a lot of them were based on wishful thinking and my longing for the elements of a normal life that I missed out on as a kid, and every morning I was snapped back to my harsh reality. In my dreams I would be fed fresh fruit and expensive gourmet chocolates. In reality, for dinner, I would get frozen peas and a hockey puck for a hamburger that I would feed to the dog under the table. In my dreams I had a canopy bed. In reality my family moved around a lot, and in the less-than-humble homes I occupied as a child, rats were actually running around where I slept.
When I was thirteen years old, my mother told me more details surrounding my birth. She said that when she was at the hospital to pick me up and bring me home soon after I was born, she saw a young woman who was speaking Italian whom she believed to be my mother. Through the process of elimination she believes that it was, in fact, her. They passed each other in the hallway of the hospital and made eye contact. My mother looked curiously at my birth mother, who was being pushed in a wheelchair by an Italian woman who was thought to be my aunt. My aunt was tall, dark, and beautiful and was wearing her wedding band, which wasn’t just any wedding band — it was covered in diamonds. My mother was extremely pretty, small-boned, and with a clear complexion and really long, curly hair.
I’ve been told I look exactly like my mother. I would joke and say, “Exactly how do I look like my mother?” I have never really thought I was attractive. I have always had a nice physique, but I’ve never liked my face. Maybe it’s just hard for me to look in the mirror.
When you have been abused, as I was during my childhood, it’s hard to see yourself as the person whom everyone else sees on the surface. I thought it was best not to look in the mirror because of the reflection I saw from being abused. Despite it not being your fault, you feel guilty and dirty because of these painful and traumatic experiences. If someone liked something about me physically, I would immediately alter it. For instance, I had really long, curly hair just like my birth mother’s. If someone liked my long hair, when I found this out, I went to a barbershop and got a boy’s haircut because I didn’t want anyone to look at me admiringly anymore. At forty-seven years old, when I look in the mirror, I see a much stronger woman than I have ever before seen. However, even now, I still don’t see what the men who have loved me have seen in me. Maybe it’s because I doubt whether they’ve actually seen my beauty on the inside.
Or maybe I pushed them away before they were able to see it. I have a history of leaving men quickly because I am scared that when they get too close, they might actually get to know the real me. In hindsight, I think that’s exactly what I wanted.
I believe that being given away by my mother at birth created a major sense of rejection that I have tried to overcome my entire life. Rejection can be a quick and simple act by one person to another, but reclaiming oneself after that rejection can be as daunting as climbing the world’s highest mountain. To go through life is difficult in itself. But wondering about one’s creation is serious grounds for insecurity and makes it more difficult to trust and love. However, it has been, and will continue to be, a journey that I will embrace and grow from.
The questions that run through the mind of a child who has been given up are many: Who are my real parents? What are my roots? Where was I actually conceived? The depth of insecurity that can result from this can only be imagined by most people. But I have known and lived with that insecurity every day of my life. My mother decided to give me away. She didn’t want me. Even if she did want me, my grandfather took control and forced this young, weak woman to abandon me. The bottom line is that my whole family — my flesh and blood — did not want to include me in their lives. I think that this severe rejection made me easy prey for people in my life.
I have spent much of my life tapping into my own senses to try to discover some answers. I certainly had my share of childhood questions, and the answers weren’t easy to come by. I had to dig in deep and try to piece together my story for myself as I daily learned more about who I was.
Some of the finer things in life that I now appreciate appear to have no connection whatsoever to any conscious experience I had during my childhood with my adoptive parents. My knowledge and appreciation of fine china, beautiful crystal, and the game of baccarat don’t reflect any exposure to these that I had during my young life. I must have perceived these things when I was in the womb and exposed to my birth mother’s upscale Italian family.
Flying in an airplane was another oddly familiar experience for me. I knew that first-class passengers boarded the plane before the other people even though I had never flown on an airplane before. Did it happen in this life when I was in my mother’s womb flying to the United States for the first time?
Or did it perhaps occur in another life? My friends have told me that they believe that all of this relates to some kind of special insight I have into the past. But I prefer to believe that it directly relates to my experiences as an unborn child in my mother’s womb.
Another important part of my heritage that I think I picked up prior to my birth is Italian food. I can be in another room, smell an Italian dish cooking in the kitchen, and know precisely what is being prepared. Is this a coincidence? My answer is no. I believe that all of my knowledge of and appreciation for Italian food can be traced back to my Sicilian roots and the place where I was conceived. I was never formally taught how to cook Italian food. Yet today I know how to prepare sophisticated dishes without using any written recipes and instinctively know how to season the foods correctly as well.
The cliché is that Italians like to cook, eat, and reproduce. It’s not surprising that those are among my favorite pastimes. (My mood and the company I am with determines where each item falls on my list.) I crave Italian food all the time. I imagine that I love to eat the things my birth mother ate when she was pregnant. Today, my daughters crave the same Italian foods that I ate when I was pregnant. I believe the child in her womb takes on his or her mother’s tastes.
This may sound a little off-the-wall, but I think I absorbed my religious beliefs as well while in my mother’s womb. I am close to my priest, Father Michael Lombardo of Our Lady of Consolation in Wayne, New Jersey, and consider my relationship with him special. I see Father Michael once a week. I have gone to church consistently throughout my life. My one stipulation to my parents as I grew up was that I had to be raised Catholic, even though I was living in a Protestant home. Luckily, I had friends who were Catholic, so I would go to mass with them and their families. I think my own children knew they were Catholic as soon as they were born. I blessed my belly all the time when I was pregnant.
When your family is a mystery that you wish to unravel and you desire answers to what might have been, you connect with your inner soul and senses more than other people usually do. You want to know where you came from. You want to find out how and why you think and feel the way you do. The questions of that journey don’t stop there. It often takes years of denial before you have the strength to face certain problems, so you can’t expect to resolve them overnight. At forty-seven years of age, I am still continuing to piece together my past and remain committed to my voyage of self-discovery. To learn is to live.
As a child, I spent every day of my life wondering if my birth mother would eventually contact me. Was she investigating my whereabouts and trying to seek me out? One thing’s for certain: I was constantly thinking about her. Was she thinking about me? Only she could answer that for sure, but as a mother, I know the deep emotional and spiritual connection that evolves from carrying a child. I can’t imagine what it would be like to never be in contact with one of my daughters, so I doubt my mother just gave me up and forgot about me completely. But again, I may never know.
After my birth, I’m not sure exactly what happened to my mother next, except that she went back to Italy with my aunt. Over the years, friends have offered their assistance to help investigate her whereabouts for me. From what I have been told, my birth mother eventually settled right here in America. Further inquiries revealed that she eventually got married and that I’m now the oldest of six children. I know that if I chose to meet my mother and her new family, there would be extremely complicated issues and risks. For one thing, I’d be coming forward completely from left field as the oldest of all her children.
Do I really want to alter my siblings’ image of their mother by revealing that she gave birth to an illegitimate child? After forty-seven years have gone by, how does a sister announce to a brother she has never known, “Listen, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you weren’t the first child born to our mother. I was.” I’ve never wanted to destroy someone else’s family unit, a group of innocent people who know nothing about me. I convinced myself that my mom probably didn’t come find me because she’d moved on and it would hurt her new family.
Or maybe they all did actually know about me but I was part of such a hurtful memory from the past that my mother was forbidden by her current husband to acknowledge it. Or maybe she just didn’t care anymore. Of course, it could be a combination of all three. Or I could be completely wrong about all of these possibilities. One thing’s for sure: I am quite curious.
Abortion was not an option for my birth mother for religious reasons, so her only choice was to eventually give me up for adoption. I admire her strength for coming all the way to the United States from Italy, giving birth to me, then walking away and believing that I would have a better life. If my birth mother decided to come forward, I would like to speak with her. I’d like to find out why she never tried to find me after all these years. I would also like her to meet my children. I’d even like her to cook a meal with my daughters and me. It doesn’t sound as if I’m asking for much, does it? Just an experience like what every daughter probably has with her mother. As a mom, I cook with my daughters often, and it’s always time well spent together — we share ideas and thoughts and talk about our lives and dreams. We make dishes together from start to finish, enjoy our accomplishments, and savor the taste of food cooked with love. I realize that this might sound simple, but I think these moments are extremely important to our development as women.
I’ve spent a good part of my life wondering what the conversation would be like between my birth mother and me if we ever met one-on-one. All she would have to do is look me in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.” It seems like such a simple gesture. I would just want her to say something that would make me truly believe in my heart and soul that she feels bad that I had to go through even a minute of what I endured during my childhood. Once my birth mother offered me a heartfelt apology, I wouldn’t discuss the subject with her again.
Not ever again.
Excerpted from “The Naked Truth” by Danielle Staub. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Gallery, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.