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Adopted Handicapped Girl Discovers her Idol is her Biological Sister

July 12, 2015 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Who got the better deal? An incredible true story of two siblings

Had I been in the hospital in Salem, Illinois, on October 1, 1987, when a baby girl was born without legs, my heart would have clenched in pity for this poor child, and my mind would have railed at the unfairness of her fate. So grotesque was her deformity that her parents chose to leave her in the hospital.

Three months later, Sharon and Gerald Bricker decided to adopt the baby. The Brickers already had three sons, ranging in age from 10 to 14. “It bothered me,” Sharon later explained, “that there was a little girl who was left at the hospital, and she had no legs. So I thought she needed a family who would love her and take care of her.” They named the baby Jennifer, and brought her home to rural Hardinville, Illinois, a town so small that it had not a single traffic light.

Gerald was a carpenter. Sharon had worked in a bakery, but was a full-time mother by the time they adopted Jen. What kind of couple adopts a legless baby? A couple who wants to give, love, and nurture. And that’s what they did.

If you're never given limits, then you think, "I can do anything.” And she did.

Jennifer grew up in a home thick with love and laughter. Her older brothers adored her. But neither her parents nor her brothers coddled her. “Can’t” was not part of the Bricker vocabulary. As Jen would later declare: “If you put your mind to it, you can do it. If you were never given limits, then you think, ‘I can do anything.’”

And she did. Alongside her three big brothers, she would climb trees, do handstands and flips, and jump from high places. Using her strong arms, she played softball, basketball, and volleyball, and became proficient in gymnastics and tumbling. Her parents constantly encouraged her, sometimes having to adapt equipment for Jen to play a particular sport. When Jen wanted to roller skate, her parents devised skates that she could attach to her hands.

When Jen was in second grade, she announced to her parents that she wanted to become a gymnast. Her idol was Dominique Moceanu, a petite gymnast whom Jen avidly watched on television. In 1995, at the age of 13, Dominique Moceanu became the youngest gymnast to win the senior all-around title at the U.S. National Championships. And at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Dominique, 14, won a gold medal with the other members of the “Magnificent Seven,” the U.S. gymnastics team. Jen was inspired watching Dominique, the youngest and the smallest on the team, a true champion.

Sharon and Gerald enrolled Jen in a gymnastics class, then a class in tumbling. Over the next four years, Jen won several tumbling competitions. When she was 12, Jen became the Illinois State Champion in tumbling. She also competed in three national meets and one Junior Olympic meet.

I’m not handicapped. That wheelchair is just to keep me from getting dirty.

With her positive, upbeat attitude and strong self-esteem, Jen was always accepted by her schoolmates. In the early grades, whenever a child stared or asked where her legs were, Jen answered matter-of-factly, “This is the way God made me.”

Once a child in her class referred to her as “handicapped.”

Astonished, Jen replied, “I’m not handicapped.”

“But you use a wheelchair,” the boy declared, to prove his point.

With the umbrage of an insulted adolescent, Jen countered, “That’s just to keep me from getting dirty.”

Enter Her Biological Family

Jen had always known that she was adopted. When she was 16, she asked her mother if she had any information about her biological parents. Sharon took out the official adoption papers. It was supposed to have been a closed adoption, but by a clerical error the name of her biological parents appeared at the top of one page. The name was “Moceanu.”

Jen’s biological sister was the Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu.

“You had been my idol my whole life,” Jen wrote to Dominique four years later, “and you turned out to be my sister! I was in extreme disbelief… My uncle is a retired private investigator, and he got in contact with Dumitru, your father. He talked to your father, and he did not deny that I was their biological child, but he would not return my uncle’s phone calls after that. So we stopped trying to contact you for a while because I did not want to seem pushy, and I wanted to do this right.”


Worried that Dominique would think she was crazy or trying to cash in on the fame of a celebrity, Jen took four years “to do this right.” She copied all the relevant documents. She assembled pictures of herself, which eerily resembled pictures of Dominique’s younger sister Christine. And she wrote a long, heartfelt letter. Finally, as Dominique would later write, Jen “put her heart in a package and shipped it off to a complete stranger.”

Dominique’s reaction was shock – and anger at her parents for keeping this secret from her for 20 years. As a child, Dominique had longed to have siblings. She had no idea that, when she was six, her parents had abandoned their baby in the hospital. When she was eight years old, her sister Christina was born. “I treasured her from the day she was born,” Dominique wrote in her autobiography, Off Balance. “Christina was my everything, and I was so happy to have her.”

After getting Jen’s package, when Dominique confronted her father, he stated flatly that they were impoverished immigrants without money or health insurance, and a Romanian doctor at the birth told them that raising a handicapped child would involve large medical expenses. So he decided they could not afford it, and put the child up for adoption. And that was that.

As for Dominique’s mother, she painfully related what had happened:

Your father said that our little girl was born with no legs. I never saw my baby. I never held her, never touched her, never even smelled her. I desperately wanted to, but your father told me we had to give her up and that was that. … You know your father – once a decision is made, that’s the end of it. (Off Balance: A Memoir, page 23)

Two Very Different Childhoods

Indeed, Dominique knew her father. Born and raised in Romania during the oppressive, Communist Ceausescu era, Dumitru Moceanu was an abusive, controlling husband and father. Immediately after marrying 19-year-old Camelia, he, with his bride, immigrated to the United States. Nine months later, Dominique was born.

Behind the limelight lurked a dark, menacing shadow. Dominique’s father was an abuser.

By 1996, having won a series of gymnastic championships, 14-year-old Dominique had become America’s darling. She was featured in Vanity Fair and her first autobiography, Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion, hit #7 on the New York Times Best Seller List.

But behind the limelight lurked a dark, menacing shadow. Dominique’s father was a classic abuser: controlling, violent, and given to bursts of rage. As Dominique would describe him in her memoirs:

As a father and husband, he ruled our house with an iron fist. Decisions were made by him, obeyed by us, and explained by nobody… My home life throughout my childhood was turbulent, at best. Tata’s rage and temper tantrums took a toll on my family. We [she, her mother, and sister] often found ourselves hiding in separate rooms. I can barely recall a single holiday when my father didn’t make a scene or create some kind of chaos. We were always walking on eggshells. (Off Balance: A Memoir, page 21)

At the age of 17, Dominique ran away from home and filed for “emancipation” – to be legally and financially independent of her parents. It turned out that her father had taken almost all of her post-Olympic earnings from shows and endorsements – almost a million dollars. The high-profile court proceedings left Dominique free, but feeling guilty, pained, and humiliated, as she was denounced by the media, which blazoned the headline: SPOILED BRAT DIVORCES PARENTS.

Then, at the age of 26, married and expecting her first child, Dominique discovered that she had a sister she never knew. The most poignant parts of her memoir are her comparisons between the traumatic childhood she suffered and the golden, happy childhood Jen enjoyed:

As Jennifer describes it, her home life was stable and full of love and support. She says her parents had minor arguments and bickered here and there like any other family, but they always “talked out” their problems, so there was never lingering tension in their home.

Jennifer’s words, “talked out,” stuck in my mind. How I had wished my parents did more talking when I was young. I mostly remember Mama and Tata either arguing when they disagreed or not talking at all. And the tense moments in our home were far more common than the peaceful ones. Many of Christina’s and my childhood memories were plagued with fear, sadness, and occasional threats of violence. When I think about these painful times, I am happy for Jennifer that she had such a positive home life – and I can’t help but think that the Bricker home was a better place for Jennifer to grow up than mine was. …

During our first conversation, I found myself thinking, Thank God someone was watching over her, so she didn’t have to suffer like Christina and I did. (pp. 102-103)

On October 1, 1987, in a hospital in Salem, Illinois, a baby girl was born without legs. Her sister, born intact, became a champion Olympic gymnast, showered with fame and wealth. Whose life was blessed? Whose life was cursed?

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