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Both Sides at Last

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.

April 08, 1997|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

The early part of the story isn't something Mitchell finds easy telling. She'd rather focus on the "joy and celebration" of the reunion. 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.

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