Finding Zoe by Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

While I’ve read several memoirs by and about Deaf people and their families, this is my only example of an adoption story thus far. Finding Zoe, by Brandi Rarus (she/her) and Gail Harris (she/her), is a memoir about Rarus’s journey to adopting Zoe, a girl born with significant hearing loss. Finding Zoe begins with Rarus’s own story. She was born hearing but became deaf at age six after contracting spinal meningitis. Because she had acquired a language and speech, Rarus continued to speak and try to read people’s lips. Readers get her journey to accepting that she is deaf and learning sign language, then joining the Deaf community. She attends the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which is “the first and largest technological college in the world for students who are deaf or hard of hearing” (Wikipedia).

Eventually, Rarus gets involved in college activities that you may not expect, like becoming Miss Deaf America and participating in the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University, which not only led to the first Deaf president at “the only university in the world where students live and learn using American Sign Language (ASL) and English” (source), but helped solidify the need to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.

One of the Deaf activists who is interviewed about the protests, Tim Rarus, was raised in a Deaf family, with generations of Deaf family members. Initially, Tim and Brandi do not like each other because Tim will not acknowledge Brandi. Brandi signs more English than ASL, which Tim judges. Plus, she doesn’t go to Gallaudet University, she attends NTID. However, as you can guess by Tim’s last name, they get married.

Two successful Deaf adults, Brandi and Tim Rarus go on to have three children, all boys and all hearing. But Brandi desperately wants a girl and commences a journey to adopt one. From there, Finding Zoe veers away from Rarus’s personal life and tells the story of Jess and BJ, two young people who find themselves expecting a child after a one-night stand. While Jess wants to put the future baby up for adoption, BJ clings to the idea of fatherhood.

As the story progresses, their baby — who is renamed several times — is sent to foster parents, returns home with Jess, is adopted by a hearing couple, is sent back to foster care, goes back to Jess, etc. Why did this baby have parents choose and then return her? Because she quickly loses her hearing after birth due to her Jess having contracted a virus while pregnant. And poor Jess, who is trying to move on with her life and cope with her decision to relinquish her baby, must keep taking the baby back while keeping things quite with BJ so he won’t try to intervene through the court system. It’s pretty harrowing emotionally.

Finding Zoe is very much a feel-good book about stars aligning. Brandi and Tim Rarus find the daughter they want in Jess and BJ’s baby girl not only because she needs a home, but because they are the right home for a deaf infant. With two Deaf parents, the baby, at last called Zoe, would be communicated with in ASL from only a few months old, exposing her to the language that most deaf infants miss because their parents are hearing or focus on teaching their child to speak.

While I’m not a big believer in stars aligning, readers will notice a lot of heart in Finding Zoe. I’m not a grumpy bear; when the baby girl was first placed in a home, those parents thought they found their one-and-only daughter — that it was meant to be. It was not the best placement for the infant. Pretty much every person written about is Christian, so there is a lot of praying about relationships, adoption, safety, and difficult choices, which will appeal to readers of that faith.

I didn’t find it overwhelming as non-religious person, but instead saw it as part of the culture of the people in the book. For instance, as a teen Jess is sneaking out at night, drinking, and having sex, but it’s her family’s Lutheran faith that stops her from having an abortion. My brain went right to the hypocrisy of pick-and-choose religion, but in some heavily Christian parts of the U.S. there’s being wild and careless, and then there’s a mortal sin. I get it, so I read like an anthropologist. And that’s okay.

I always find adoption stories interesting if they’re well-written, and though Finding Zoe is a little “peppier” than I’m used to, it goes on my list of recommended adoption books.

Looking for other books about adoption? Check out these titles:

*note: I am not sure what Gail Harris’s involvement in the book was, but Brandi Rarus thanks her for being there every step of the way. It’s possible Finding Zoe was an “as told to” book, but based on what I found on Google it may have been more collaborative than that?

CW: audism, mentions abortion

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  1. Such an interesting story Melanie … and it’s nice to read a positive book. There’s so much I’d like to know though. How did the three hearing brothers feel about Zoe? Do her birth parents have ongoing contact?

    I take your point re religion but I think you have the right attitude. It’s easy for non-believers to judge Christians in a black and white way but although they may espouse beliefs others of us don’t have, they are still human, aren’t they.


    • One whole section of the book is about the birth parents, their parents, and the foster parents and first adoptive parents Zoe had. She went to many homes at first, and I was glad the author shared so much about Zoe’s origins. I’m not sure how her three brothers feel about her; I always feel hesitant when I read stories about people who have kids but want just one more specific kind of kid to truly make them happy. Personally, I’d go off my nut being the kid who is loved by not really The One, but I’m also not speaking from experience. In another story I read (That One Summer by Tamaki) the parents have a daughter, but the mother has a miscarriage and spends a whole year severely depressed. Meanwhile, the daughter is wondering what’s wrong with her, why doesn’t her mom love her, why won’t her mom spend time with her, why does her mom want another baby so badly and can’t see that she has a daughter right in front of her.


      • Yes, that was exactly my thought about the boys – though I guess being three of them they can rationalise it more, but then does the third boy feel worse knowing his mum really wanted him to be a girl?

        And yes re that depression. I’ve seen/read stories like that too, though it’s usually been presented as grief not depression. If it’s depression, it’s a whole new ball-game but if its grief I keep thinking “of course you’re sad, but here’s another child or children to pour your love in to. You’ll never forget the one you’ve lost but enjoy those you stll have!” Easier said than done, for some, I know.


  2. Oh lordy, Christians, people, anyone being against abortion just…really really bothers me. The hypocrisy that that belief involves is just mind blowing. It really boils my blood. I really try to stay open-minded about some things, but you must live in complete ignorance to believe abortion is bad.


    • I’m not against people who are against abortion for their personal choices, but enacting laws that take away choices from people is what bothers me. So, in this case, the young woman could have had an abortion and avoided years of getting the same baby she let go of over and over and the trauma that comes with that. Or, she may have experienced post-abortion trauma because of her personal beliefs, which is not the same thing that would happen to every woman. So, really, anyone who is anti-abortion for themselves but does not dictate what others may choose is still pro-choice. And can I just say that I love how your passion comes through in this comment? You’re a mom, a woman, and you really, really care!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes, that’s an important distinction I should have made – I’m definitely pro choice. Don’t want an abortion? Great don’t get one? Shame or prevent others from getting an abortion? Get lost! LOL


  3. This sounds so interesting, one I’ll definitely pick up if I can find it. I do wonder about how the baby who is the one that will complete the family’s needs feels about it, too. I was often told as a child that my folks believed in quality not quantity, but unfortunately they got neither! (years of therapy blah blah blah it’s fine now).


    • Are you sure it’s fine now? 😅

      I noticed you picked up another adoption book I recommended. Even though neither of us have children, we both seem interested in their welfare. A fact I wish people who do have children would keep in mind!


      • Yeah, all come to terms with at great expense of time, money and effort! I’m happy with what I’ve achieved in life now on my terms. And yes, I’m always fascinated by child development, different kinds of families, etc.


  4. This sounds really interesting and, yes, like it all works out and the baby finds the right family for her. The idea of her going in and out of adoption and back to her birth mother though sounds pretty appalling. I wonder how her birth mother is now. And how disruptive that might be to an infant’s development.


    • I hadn’t thought about the baby’s development during him time in foster care/with her birth mother/with her first family mainly because she develops so beautifully once she is in Rarus’s family. I had never heard of an adoption story like this one before, but I do wonder if shuffling around is fairly normal, but those aren’t the stories we hear about as much.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve done a little reading around infant development and attachment though not particularly around adoption. But one of the things it seems we have a better understanding of now is how much that initial attachment does matter for babies, right from birth. It used to be thought that if the child didn’t remember it, that was ok, but it seems that there can be longterm issues that result when an infant doesn’t have a safe attachment. Foster and adoptive parents can definitely be that attachment but it seems to me like the disruptions described here would make it hard for that little girl to feel safe even as a baby.


        • Interesting. I wonder how studies like that are conducted. If baby can’t remember and baby can’t talk, what do we investigate? I find it fascinating. I remember learning in a psychology class that infants that aren’t held can die.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think they studied those babies later on, through childhood and into adulthood. How they form friendships and romantic relationships later on, is what I remember. I’ve heard that about babies being held too. They put a big emphasis on holding your baby skin-to-skin immediately after birth. They told us in our birth class that if mom couldn’t then dad needed to take his shirt off and hold that baby right away!

            Liked by 2 people

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