My adoptive parents told me I was "chosen," but the kids at school told me I was a "bastard."
The recent headlines about Arnold Schwarzenegger's infidelities and the son he fathered out of wedlock have stirred many old memories and emotions.
I was four years old when I learned I was adopted. It was just before my sister Maureen's eighth birthday. I told her, "I know what you're getting for your birthday."
"Don't spoil the secret," she said. "If you tell me, I'm going to tell you a secret!"
Well, that was the wrong thing to say! I had to know what she was keeping from me! I said, "You're getting a blue dress for your birthday."
Maureen said, "And you were adopted."
I ran off to find our mother, Jane Wyman, in the den. I asked her, "What does 'adopted' mean?"
Mom's eyes flashed dangerously. "Where did you hear that word?" she asked.
After Mom finished dealing with Maureen, she sat me down and explained adoption to me. "You are a chosen child," she said, "and that makes you special. We love you very much."
I could tell that being "chosen" was a good thing. But I also realized for the first time that Mom wasn't my "real" mother—that I had another mother who had mysteriously given me away.
One day, when I was in the second grade, I got into a playground argument with another boy. We took turns one-upping each other. "I'm better than you," I said. "I'm special 'cause I was chosen! I was adopted!"
The other boy didn't know how to answer that, but the next day he came back to school and laughed at me. "My parents told me what 'adopted' means," he said. "You're not special—you're a bastard! Your real mother wasn't married, so she gave you away—bastard!"
That's when I realized there was something horribly wrong with me. I never again bragged about being "chosen," and I never again felt "special." But I did feel marked.
I wondered, "Why did my birth mother give me away? Was it because I'm a bastard?" I figured Mom couldn't have known I was illegitimate or she wouldn't have adopted me. And I didn't want her to find out!
When I returned home, I went to the library where Mom kept a huge leather-bound Bible. She'd once told me that the Bible had all the answers. I was seven years old and had never read the Bible on my own, so I turned to the back of the Bible to see if there was an index. Sure enough, I found the concordance.
I looked for the word "bastard"—and there it was. The concordance directed me to Deuteronomy 23:2, where I read: "A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord."
My heart froze. I thought those words meant, "A bastard can never go to Heaven. A bastard is damned to Hell, and so are his kids and grandkids, down to the tenth generation."
I snapped the book shut—and I didn't open a Bible again for more than twenty-five years. Of course, that verse had nothing to do with Heaven or Hell—but how could a seven-year-old understand such things?
I thought, "That's why my birth mother got rid of me! Nobody wants a child who's going to Hell! And Mom's so religious! If she finds out I'm going to Hell, she won't want me anymore!" So, at age seven, I began to hate myself—and God.
The story of my spiritual and emotional redemption—is in my book "Twice Adopted." But the story I'm thinking about now is the painful story of Arnold Schwarzenegger's son.
I keep hearing chattering heads on TV referring to the boy as Schwarzenegger's "illegitimate" son. It makes my blood boil. Listen, there's no such thing as an illegitimate child. There are only illegitimate parents.
And Arnold, I hope you read this: Your son is not the bastard. You're the bastard. You're the illegitimate parent.
I don't say that to insult you. I say it for your own good. I say it because you need to face these facts. You've been a bastard up till now, but you can change that. You can man up. You can sit down with your son, acknowledge him, apologize to him, admit that you failed him, promise to love him, and begin to protect him from ridicule.
That boy is going to need a lot of love and affirmation from his father. Why? Because the bastards in the media have gone after him, publishing horrible, humiliating stories, putting his picture on the Internet, subjecting him to ridicule at school.
Arnold, you've always played a hero in the movies. But now the whole world knows it was just an act. How would you like to be a real hero for a change?
It is time to stop being a bastard and start being a father.
Michael Reagan is the son of President Ronald Reagan. He is a political consultant, the founder and chairman of The Reagan Group, and president of The Reagan Legacy Foundation. Visit his website at www.reagan.com. Portions of this column are adapted from his book "Twice Adopted."