From his earliest memory growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif., north of San Francisco, Greg Sarris felt out of place in his adoptive parents’ suburban middle-class world. It would be decades before he finally came to understand why. At 19, after years of searching, Sarris learned from a doctor how his unmarried mother, a rebellious girl from a wealthy Southern California family, had died at 17 after giving birth to him in a horribly botched delivery. It would be another nine years before Sarris, leafing through a 1948 Laguna Beach High School yearbook, would gasp at the photo of a teenage boy named Emilio who might have been his double. “My heart leaped, and I just knew,” says Sarris. “He was my rather. He was darker than me—but that smile…”
In a sense, Sarris, now 41, has been on a journey of self-discovery nearly all of his life. A troubled, streetwise adolescent, he went on to earn a Ph.D at Stanford and became an English professor, a playwright and the author of five books, one the basis for a 1996 HBO special produced by Robert Redford, and his most recent, Watermelon Nights, about three people’s search for identity. More important, Sarris, raised in the heart of Anglo culture, has discovered that he is descended from the Native American Miwok tribe, whose members not only embraced him, but in 1992 elected him their modern-day chief. It is a transformation that Sarris himself marvels at. “Here was the boy who had no family,” he says, in his Los Angeles home, “and now is suddenly surrounded by the world.”
Sarris’s odyssey began in 1957 when his adoptive parents, Mary Sarris and her husband, George, manager of a building-supply business, were notified that there had been problems during delivery of the baby promised to them. When the healthy boy arrived, wearing a hospital bracelet with the name “Baby Hartman,” Mary simply clipped the band and discarded it. A week later, when a death notice appeared in the local paper—for one Mary Bernadette (Bunny) Hartman, age 17—she discarded that too.
The Sarrises went on to have three biological children, but their marriage disintegrated. George became increasingly abusive, especially toward the dark-complected Greg. “My adoptive father used to call me names, like ‘weirdo’ and ‘nigger,’ ” says Sarris. “I was always ‘the adopted one.’ ” When Sarris was 12, his parents divorced, and by junior high, “I was antisocial, angry, confused.” He began to spend time in Santa Rosa’s poor South Park section, where chickens wandered on unpaved roads. “I’d always lived in a protected middle-class neighborhood,” he says. “Now I was seeing Mexicans, Indians and blacks—tough, rejected, angry kids, too.” By age 16, Sarris was sniffing glue, and his grades had plummeted.
One day in 1974 he snapped out of his haze. “Stoned, I was watching an acorn float in the water toward a tunnel,” he recalls. “I knew that if I took any more glue and went into the tunnel with that acorn, I would die. So I pulled back.” By the time he graduated from Santa Rosa High, Sarris had a perfect 40 average.
But it was not until 1977 as a community college student that Sarris finally confronted his adoptive mother about his past. The few details Mary Sarris could provide led him to a local doctor, Harold Hanzlik, who tearfully recounted how he had been handed the wrong type of blood and unwittingly given Bunny Hartman the transfusion that killed her. Sarris later learned that his mother was the daughter of the president of the May Co. department store chain and contacted his maternal grandmother, only to be turned away. “To make a long story short, she wasn’t interested in meeting me.” Sarris says his lawyer claims he could make a case for an inheritance from his mother’s family. “But,” he says, “the last thing I want is to take anything from someone who doesn’t want me.”
For a time, Sarris, who went on to a scholarship at UCLA and decided to become a writer, gave up the search for his father. But through a friend in 1985 he met Bunny’s brother, who was struck by Sarris’s looks. “He told me, ‘You remind me of a football player I knew,’ ” says Sarris. “He used to take notes from Bunny to this guy on the football field.” Not long after, Sarris found the photo of Emilio Hilario Jr., a Filipino-Native American, in a Laguna yearbook. Still more pieces fell into place when Sarris tracked down a friend of his mother’s, who remembered Bunny and Emilio’s three-year high school romance. “When I heard Greg on the phone I was struck by how much he sounded like Emilio,” says Diana Gleed Cox, 64, a retired innkeeper. “It was closure to a story I had wondered about for 30 years.” She recalled that when Bunny, then just 17, didn’t return from an ostensible trip to Europe, her friends were told by her family that she had been killed in an equestrian accident. “I didn’t believe it,” says Cox. “No one did. Emilio cared for her, and if he had known she was pregnant, he would have done the right thing.”
After tracking down Hilario relatives in the Laguna phone book, Sarris learned that his father, a salesman, had died just seven months before of heart failure. Still stung by the frosty reception from his maternal grandmother, he hesitantly introduced himself to his paternal grandfather, Emilio Sr., as a long-lost family friend. But when the old man showed him the photo of a young fighter in boxing trunks, “I said, ‘What an athlete,’ ” Sarris recalls. “And all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder. Emilio said, ‘Yes, just like you. You’re just like your father.’ I hugged him, and it was as if I had my feet on the ground for the first time in my life.”
Through his grandfather, Sarris learned that he was one-quarter Miwok, a Native American tribe that has dwindled to an impoverished 350 members now living in northern California. Six years after meeting his tribal relatives in 1986, he was elected chief and began a federal legal battle to win financial reparation for the Miwok.
While not all of Sarris’s past has been resolved, he has for the most part at found a sense or peace—and, finally, of belonging. At a recent California book-signing, he beamed as the audience, packed with newfound relatives, burst into applause. “I’ve gone from being the kid nobody wanted,” says Sarris, “to being the kid that everyone does.”
Danelle Morton in Los Angeles