From an early age, Sara-Jayne King knew she wasn’t like the other children in the neighborhood. As the only mixed-race girl in a predominantly white area, the child found herself constantly questioning her identity. But then she discovered a letter long hidden by her mother and suddenly all the answers fell into place.
Located 25 miles from the bustle of London, Crowhurst in Surrey seems an idyllic place to raise a child. Indeed, King, who is now a journalist, has some pleasant memories of growing up in the English village. She recalled to the BBC in July 2019, “I woke up every morning and looked out across fields and saw chickens and lambs.”
And yet King’s experience of living in the community wasn’t as idyllic as the village’s pleasant pastoral beauty. Unlike the rest of the kids in town, King was mixed race. However, this wasn’t an issue for her, until it became a point of focus for other people in her neighborhood.
“I really was living a very sort of white, middle-class existence,” she recalled to the BBC. In the playground, King’s classmates would do things such as touching her hair, which instilled in her a feeling of otherness. She continued, “We sort of absorb other people’s views of us.”
And things weren’t exactly helped by King’s situation at home. Although she and her adopted brother were mixed race and black respectively, both of their parents were white. And while King knew she too was the product of adoption, her mom and dad both declined to divulge anything too revealing about her lineage.
In regards to her origin, King’s parents told her only minor details. For instance, they explained that she was originally from South Africa and that they couldn’t conceive a child themselves. All this added up to a sense of unease in King’s mind about her identity. And time did little to heal her inner turmoil.
As King became a teenager, her feelings of isolation began to increase and she became increasingly unhappy. At one point, at the age of 13, she even overdosed on paracetamol. Plagued with questions, King would by chance soon find her answers. But in the process, she’d only experience more heartbreak.
One year after her failed suicide attempt, King sneaked into her mother’s bedroom. Alone in the room, the teenager began rifling through her parent’s possessions and found a letter addressed to herself. Intrigued, she opened the envelope and found something truly alarming inside.
To her surprise, King discovered a letter written to her from her biological mother. Even more alarming was the fact that the message had been made a year after her birth. As she began to read on, King would slowly uncover the secrets to her life – the ones her adoptive parents had kept secret all this time.
Just as her adoptive mother had described, King really was born in South Africa. What’s more, the teen’s birth mother – like her guardian – was a white British woman. While studying in the U.K. in the late 1970s, she’d fallen in love with a white South African man. And after she graduated from university, the student followed him back to his homeland.
Once she’d arrived in South Africa in 1979, King’s biological mother and her boyfriend had started working for a hotel in Johannesburg. But the British national was apparently unhappy with her partner. And soon, her attentions began wandering to the hotel’s black head chef.
Subsequently, King’s mother became involved romantically with the chef. Naturally, having an affair can be risky for anybody. But for a couple from different races in 1970s South Africa, their liaison was downright dangerous. Under the sway of Apartheid, the country had prohibited relationships between white and black people. And the consequences would be dire were they to be discovered.
Unsurprisingly, the lovers’ illicit relationship led to a cruel aftermath. In the midst of her affair, the British mother would fall pregnant with King. Moreover, she had no way of knowing whether the child belonged to her boyfriend or her lover. All she could do was wait for her baby to be born.
In 1980 the British national finally gave birth to King. At first, the baby looked to be white, prompting the new mother to breathe a deep sigh of relief. Together with her boyfriend, she named the child Karoline and began to raise her as any parent would. However a few weeks afterwards, they discovered that their initial assumptions had been wrong.
So over time, it became obvious that the baby, who seemed to be white at birth, was in fact mixed race. And through her child, King’s mother could now no longer hide her affair. What’s more, the baby would be all the authorities needed to bring her before a judge.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t just King’s parents who would face severe punishments were their affair to be found out. Growing up mixed race in a divided country, King herself would have been kept separate from other children lest others would guess her lineage. And if she were discovered, the child could have been separated from her parents and sent to an orphanage.
With few options left to her, King’s mother, along with her husband and the doctor, came up with an unthinkable idea. They’d claim that the baby had an uncommon kidney disease, and that they’d need to fly to London to seek care.
Of course, there was no treatment for the family to seek in London, it was a ruse. In reality, they were taking King back to her mom’s home country in order to put the baby up for the adoption. Thus, her mother’s affair would not come to light.
Meanwhile, King would soon be adopted by a British couple, who took the child’s life as a blessing. But for the baby’s birth mother, King had a story as to her daughter’s whereabouts. Upon arriving back childless in South Africa, she explained that King had passed away in the U.K.
Reading that letter in her adoptive mother’s bedroom awakened a whole host of thoughts in King’s head. While she now finally knew the truth about her origin, the teenager was filled with new and terrible emotions. And soon feelings of abandonment galvanized with her own pre-existing issues of alienation.
“The color of my skin was so abhorrent, and what my biological parents had done was so disgusting, that I would have to be taken from my homeland and raised elsewhere,” King explained. “I felt this feeling of how dreadful must one be as a person that the one person on Earth who is supposed to love you, and care for you, and nurture you no matter what, was able to do what my biological mother had done, which was to give away her child.”
Moreover, the facts about King’s adoption came as another blow to her sense of self. Coupled with the “micro aggressions of racism” she had experienced in England, the teen became even more ashamed of her own skin. The journalist told South Africa’s Sunday Times in 2017, “It’s such a negating, othering experience. It makes you the dirty secret. The thing that cannot be spoken.”
As King grew older, her desire to discover more about her origins and the family whose DNA ran inside her body grew. She continued, “I wanted to know where I came from. I wanted to know where I got my smile from. Who did I look like? Whose hands did I have? Who else in the family had a fiery temper?”
While studying law at London’s University of Greenwich as a young woman, King reached out to the adoption agency who’d helped her found a new home as a baby. Through them, she discovered that her biological mother had moved away from South Africa. However, the latter had kept the organization up to date with her movements and it gave King her current address.
Soon, King was writing a letter of her own to the woman who gave her life. In it, she asked for information regarding her birth, but stated she had no desire to foster a relationship with her either. After sending the message off, King waited and waited. And after a while, she finally received a reply.
However, the response was not one King had been hoping for. Rather than provide answers or express joy at hearing from her long-lost child, King’s biological mother’s response was cold. According to the South African Sunday Times, she replied, “You’re the worst mistake I ever made. Do not contact me again.” King continued, “[I was] absolutely distraught. My only explanation for it is that something happens to you when you hand over a baby. Something must switch in your brain.”
Nevertheless, King was undeterred. Sucking up her sadness, the student ignored her birth mother’s message and wrote back demanding answers. In response, she received in the mail two items from her life giver: a copy of her birth certificate and a picture of her biological father. Neither of the items, however, came with an apology for her parent’s actions.
Finally, King had found some answers. But in the following years, her demons would only intensify. During her time at university, the journalist would fall victim to substance abuse as well as an eating disorder. Meanwhile, she lost contact with her adoptive father and her brother committed suicide.
And while she had managed to contact her mother, King was unsuccessful in her efforts to find her biological father. For all intents and purposes, according to the Sunday Times, he had “disappeared off the face of the earth.” More alone than ever and with substance abuse and self-harm taking its toll, King began to spiral increasingly out of control.
King’s issues then reached a peak in 2007. After being dismissed from a job in Dubai, the journalist decided that her addictions had gone unchecked for too long, so she looked into treatment plans. And as chance would have, King found out that South African clinics offered more affordable care.
So King took the plunge, booking treatment in South Africa and buying a plane ticket to Johannesburg. But as she approached the city, the journalist found herself overcome with emotion. She recalled to the BBC, “We’re still in the air and I thought, ‘Something momentous is happening. The plane wheels touched down and I thought, ‘I’m home.’”
Over the course of her year-long treatment, King found herself connecting with the life that could have been. During her stay, she went in search of her family and found out that she had a half-brother. Unlike with her biological mother, King would meet her sibling and they’d become close for a while.
Even after her treatment was complete, King still wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the country of her birth. Then after spending years flying back and forth between Cape Town and London, King made the decision to move to South Africa for good in 2013.
But while King may have finally found comfort, her story was far from over. During her stint in rehab, the journalist had begun to document her struggles in an autobiography, the writing of which proved uncomfortable yet cathartic. The author told the Sunday Times, “I would write a chapter and then I would go to my therapist and cry on the floor for an hour.”
Released in 2017 under the title Killing Karoline, the memoir details every moment of King’s painful upbringing. For its part, the book opened another chapter in its author’s story. And moreover, it made her life’s cast of characters complete at last.
While talking about her memoir on a radio program that year, King began to speak about her biological father. Detailing her attempts to find him, the writer explained that – even with her help of a private investigator – she was still unable to find any answers. But to her surprise, Twitter users then began their own investigation.
Indeed, just a day-and-a-half later, people on Twitter who’d been listening to King’s story managed to find her father. After all these years, King had received his phone number and the missing piece to her puzzle. Soon, the journalist would be making a call and anxiously waiting for her birth father to pick up. But would he be more forthcoming than her mother was?
To King’s delight, the missing parent was more than happy to take her call. Following an initial half-hour conversation, the duo began to talk on the phone every day. After a week of hearing each other’s voices through the telephone wires, they arranged to meet face-to-face. And this would lead to the best day of King’s life, she told the BBC.
“I will never forget him just walking around the corner, and we both just burst into tears, and he hugged me and he said, ‘My daughter, my daughter,’” King told the BBC. “It suddenly dawned on me, I am someone’s daughter. I am someone’s daughter and I belong.”
Although it took decades of longing and heartbreak, King has finally found the peace of mind she was so desperately searching for. Through her relationships with both her adoptive and biological families – which include three half-siblings from her father – the broadcaster no longer worries about her identity. Today King knows who she is and where she comes from – and that’s something she will never lose.