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Both Sides at Last

Bill Higgins
[Los Angeles Times]
April 8, 1997


In 1965, a heartbroken Joni Mitchell was compelled to give up her baby daughter for adoption. Now, the singer-songwriter is happily reunited with her child--and a grandson.

A few weeks ago, a living piece of Joni Mitchell's life fell back into place. The singer was reunited with the daughter she signed over to an adoption agency under Dickensian circumstances 32 years ago.

The adoption took place years before Mitchell would write such classics as "Both Sides Now," "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock," and receive the gold records, the Grammy Awards, the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1965, she was Roberta Joan Anderson, a penniless student at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, Canada, her father a grocery store manager, her mother a teacher in Saskatchewan.

But she sits at an outside table in a Brentwood restaurant, lights an American Spirit cigarette and recalls in her first interview on the subject what it was like to be broke, unwed and pregnant in mid-'60s Canada.

"I conceived in art college at the age of 20, near the end of term," says Mitchell, 53. "The main thing at the time was to conceal it. The scandal was so intense. A daughter could do nothing more disgraceful. It ruined you in a social sense. You have no idea what the stigma was. It was like you murdered somebody."

She didn't want her parents to know, so she couldn't ask them for help. The baby's father, a fellow student, wasn't ready to settle down. Abortion wasn't an option. And Mitchell didn't feel ready for parenthood herself. "An unhappy mother does not raise a happy child," she says.

Matters weren't helped by being a charity patient in a Toronto hospital, where, she says, "one of the barbaric things they did was they bound the breasts of unwed mothers to keep the milk from coming." Birth complications kept her in the hospital an extra 10 days, which meant she saw and held the baby she had named Kelly Dale Anderson. "I have no money. I have no home. I have no job. When I leave the hospital, I have no roof over my head," she says. "But I kept trying to find some kind of circumstance where I could stay with her that wouldn't be malforming to her and to myself."

She rushed into "a marriage of convenience, at best" with American folk singer Chuck Mitchell with the intent of keeping the child. There was also the promise of work in Detroit. But aside from a new last name, nothing else remains. "One month into the marriage, he chickened out, I chickened out. The marriage had no basis, except to provide a home for the baby."

The adoption agency was pressuring Mitchell, saying the longer she waited, the more difficult it would be to place the child. In the marriage's second month, Mitchell signed Kelly Dale away. "It says in the papers that at the hearing I became emotional, which I'm sure I did. I don't remember any of this. I blocked it all away."

In retrospect, Mitchell feels she did the right thing. "I gambled," she says. "I took what was behind the curtains. I gambled that the people who came forward to take this child wanted this child and felt like there was a hole in their life without this child."

About three years later, Mitchell's career started to take off. These were lonely times, when she drove between clubs on the East Coast folk music circuit. In 1968, she released her first record, "Song to a Seagull." A year later, her "Clouds" album contained "Both Sides Now," which became a hit for Judy Collins. It also featured "Chelsea Morning," which inspired Bill and Hillary Clinton when it came time to name their daughter.

Mitchell says that for the first few years after the adoption, she "worried constantly" about the baby's health. Her pregnancy diet had been "atrocious." She was concerned "that her bones were all right." She's says the memory of the child "comes to you at funny times, like when a friend's child falls off a bike."

Kelly Dale would be Mitchell's only child. "It seemed like there was never a good time to have a baby," she says. "I think part of the difficulty was finding a man who wanted a child. It was a very irresponsible time in general for that generation. It was the whole Peter Pan syndrome."

Mitchell tried looking for her daughter, but had little luck. The nature of the search changed four years ago when one of Mitchell's '60s art school roommates sold the story of the adoption to a supermarket tabloid. At the time, Mitchell says, "it hurt like hell" that someone who should have been empathetic would do such a thing. But the betrayal led to widespread publicity.

When the news hit that Joni Mitchell had put a child up for adoption, "impostors came out of the woodwork," she says, laughing as she recalls a waitress named Kelly in an L.A. restaurant she frequents who went home and asked her mother if she was adopted.

Fortunately for Mitchell, Kelly Dale Anderson, now Kilauren Gibb, was looking for her birth mother.

About five years ago, the 27-year-old Gibb was told by her parents that she was adopted. She was pregnant and wanted to know her biological parents. She called Canada's Childrens Aid, which put her on a waiting list. It wasn't until Jan. 31 of this year that a package arrived with her birth parents' biographical material. But it was only general information. There were "dates, heights, that they had musical talents," Gibb says by phone from Toronto. "It was the kind of brief descriptions you'd get for characters in a play."

It took Gibb 24 hours to absorb the news. Then friends started pointing out the similarities with the much-publicized search for Mitchell's daughter. Gibb went to a reference library and found nothing on the singer. A computer school student, she turned to the Internet, where there is a Joni Mitchell Homepage that fan Wally Breese maintains.

"I was reading this as it came on the screen, and I was thinking, 'Oh, my God! All these facts are matching. Mother had polio at 9, grandfather was in charge of a grocery business, grandmother was a teacher . . . Saskatchewan . . . boyfriend in art school.' There were like 14 or 15 matches."

Gibb called the office of Mitchell's manager, but was put off because there were so many callers. But the information Gibb possessed seemed promising, so Mitchell asked her manager to phone and listen to her voice.

Her manager spoke to Gibb. "He came back and said it made his hair stand on end. He said it's like you're talking to the same person."

Gibb came to Los Angeles with her 4-year-old son, Marlin. Mitchell now had a daughter and grandson. "Kilauren said I get to watch him grow up now," says Mitchell.

They discovered similarities (they both shoot pool) and differences (Mitchell loves fried liver and onions; Gibb doesn't touch red meat). Gibb didn't have any of her mother's albums, but loved the duet she did with Seal on "If I Could." Both married musicians. Mitchell is twice divorced. Gibb is separated from Marlin's father, a Toronto-based drummer.

Mitchell thinks her daughter looks like her own mother. "She has my mother's stature. We've got cheekbones galore. She's got cheekbones down every part of her family."

Gibb is certain she and her mother "were in Studio 54 in the '80s together, dancing around and not knowing it. I lived in New York when she had an apartment there."

Gibb had a 13-year career as an international model. (The 16-year-old Gibb appears in the 1981 Danskin catalog with Denise Brown, sister of Nicole Brown Simpson.) Gibb says she made a good living in print ads, rock videos, TV commercials and bit parts in films, including "The Freshman."

But since her adoptive parents were academics, there was a strong stress on education. Gibb attended the University of Toronto, and one year took classes at Harvard University in drama and psychology.

There are still a number of issues to be worked out. Perhaps a meeting with her father. Mitchell is concerned that the adoptive parents "don't feel this is a conflict with their relationship with Kilauren. It's a different relationship. I owe so much to them. I'm so grateful for that. My faith was well put. They raised her very well."

Gibb says, "There's a definite umbilical cord that was never cut."

For Mitchell, the end of the story "counteracts the ugliness at the beginning."

 

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