GILLETTE — On April 7, 2001, on the eve of her 43rd birthday, Shirley Newson received a fateful piece of mail. She’d been unable to open it on her own, for she knew the contents had the power to upend her life and her very notion of self. She went to her then-boyfriend’s house, where they opened the mail together. It contained information that seemed simultaneously unthinkable and obvious.
She needed to tell her mother, Jean Morgan, what she’d just discovered and drove to her house in a sort of daze. Her close friend, Diane Pennington, then the owner of Boardwalk Hair Design, said Newson stopped by the salon on her way to her mother’s. To this day, Newson doesn’t remember it. She just remembers arriving at her mother’s.
“I walked in, and she was standing there, and I said, ‘I got the test results,’” Newson, 64, said. “‘They say that James Morgan has 0.00% chance of being my father.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘If he’s not your father, then I’m not your mother. I have never been with another man.’ Period. That was it.”
There was no lengthy discussion or time to debrief and recover from this shocking news.
Pennington said Newson was back at the salon “not 15 minutes later.”
If Newson was looking for a more comforting reaction from her father, Jim, who was in the Pioneer Manor nursing home at the time, she’d have no better luck.
“When I went to see him to give him the results, I said, ‘You’re not my dad,’” Newson recalled. “He said, ‘Well, I never thought I was your dad. When I brought you home from the hospital, I knew you weren’t my child. It’s just like’ — the Morgan family had a ranch, and they raised sheep, and he said — ‘it’s just like when a bum lamb with a black face is raised by another ewe. She just takes her in, even though she has a black face, and raises her. That’s what I did with you.’”
Jean would get a DNA test as well, and it would confirm that she and Newson were not biologically related.
And just like that, Newson’s entire life up to that point made sense. She knew what had happened.
On April 8, 1958, in the wee morning hours after 3 a.m. at Campbell County Memorial Hospital, she’d been mistakenly switched shortly after her birth and had spent the subsequent 43 years believing — naturally but ultimately incorrectly — that she had Morgan blood coursing through her veins.
Now, more than 20 years later, Newson is publishing a book, “The Little Dark One: A True Story of Switched at Birth,” in the hope that her story, and more specifically her perseverance, will be an inspiration to others facing difficult situations in their lives. In the course of writing the book, Newson realized it was a story she needed to tell for herself as well.
The news from the DNA tests revealed but part of a mystery. Many questions remained: Where was Newson’s birth mother? And where was the Morgans’ biological child?
Newson set about answering those remaining questions.
“I went to the library and went through microfiche and made a spreadsheet,” Newson said. “I made a spreadsheet of all the women that were admitted and the births. There were two babies born that day, but only one listed.”
Newson got Jean to sign a medical release and went to the hospital looking for records. They weren’t there, so she went next to the state archives. Once she got Jean’s medical records, Newson learned she had to petition the court to get patient records of those who were treated around the same time as Jean.
“They used a numbering system,” Newson said. “Jean’s was 4,734.”
So she requested the patients around that number, and then waited months before the judge opened them.
While all of this was happening, one of her sisters was pushing forward with her own attempts at finding her biological sister.
Jean told Newson that one of her sisters would be publishing a letter in the newspaper about the revelation.
“I said, ‘Please don’t,’” Newson recalled. “‘I will find your daughter. I’m doing the proper procedures; I’m following the letter of the law. Please. Just let me do this so we can keep this quiet.’”
The woman who’d raised her said, “You don’t understand: This is our family, and we will do whatever we have to do to find our daughter.”
Newson didn’t get her wish to keep things quiet. Her story made local, national and international news before it was over. All along the way, Newson refused to participate in any of them.
But, thanks to Newson’s hard work, the Morgans found their biological daughter, Debra.
And Newson found her birth mother. She was born to Polly Muñoz on that April morning in 1958.
In October 2001, Debra came to meet the Morgans, and shortly after that, Polly came to meet Newson. Reunions were had, and stories were written as if this particular fairy tale had reached its happily-ever-after ending.
But life is more complicated than fairy tales.
Her relationship with her birth mother was not as close as she might have hoped it would be, Newson said.
Neither was the relationship between Debra and the Morgans.
But one positive that came out of the discovery was that Newson felt, for a brief moment, a sense of belonging.
It came when she met her biological mother’s sister, Mary, in Worland.
“I walked into her pharmacy, and she said, ‘You look just like your mother,’” Newson said. “And I was just crying because I had never in my life been told I look like anyone.”
More than two decades later, the retelling of that moment is still enough to bring tears to Newson’s eyes.
Newson’s rocky relationship with her family didn’t start with the revelations contained in those DNA tests. Uncertainty surrounded her entire existence. The Morgan family was described at every turn as physically imposing and fair-skinned, of Irish ancestry with blue or green eyes and red hair.
Newson, on the other hand, was a slight woman with dark skin and dark eyes. She was the seventh out of eight children, so by the time she’d come along, the Morgans pretty well knew what to expect from a new addition to the family, and she simply wasn’t it. When she was to be singled out from her siblings, Newson was often referred to as “the little dark one.”
“The family dynamics changed when I was born,” Newson said.
Those physical differences were the cause of great mistrust from her father.
When Newson was in junior high school, Jim’s mother sent a letter to Jean in which she put vile words to a suspicion that seemed to linger in the minds of some who knew the family. Jean read the letter, and then, inexplicably, called Newson over to see what was written in it.
“She called me the (n-word) in the woodpile,’” Newson said.
Pennington said whispers and speculation abounded in the community, with many coming to the same conclusion: Newson’s physical differences must have been the result of an affair on Jean’s part.
“All those years, she went with that accusation hanging over her head, including (from) her husband, and that’s horrible, too,” Pennington said.
“It was always there,” Newson said. “(Jean) said she never knew about (the rumors), but she got that letter when I was in junior high, and I would assume other things were said to her. But she never acknowledged any of it.”
It was a different time, Newson said. Feelings weren’t discussed.
“You lived by the code of, ‘If we don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen,’” Newson said.
Despite more than four decades of life dictated by that code, Newson said it still hurt.
When Jean responded so matter-of-factly about the DNA results, “it was like a stab in my heart,” Newson said. “She didn’t say, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter. We still love you.’ That was never said.”
The result was years of reinforcement of the same heartbreaking messages she’d internalized her entire life.
“I feel like there were just countless, countless messages to this beautiful woman all of her life that, ‘You just don’t belong,’” said Cheryl Wales, a cognitive behavioral therapist who treats Newson and was given permission to talk about her treatment.
The revelation presented by the DNA test, as disorienting as it was, provided clarity.
“What I felt after I found out that I’d been switched was validation,” Newson said. “It validated all the feelings I’d had my whole life. Not being loved, not belonging, being unworthy, not being lovable, worthless.”
But that validation brought with it a whole new set of concerns, most simply stated as: Now what?
“On one hand, you’re able to say, ‘I was right all along,’” Wales said. “‘I’m not like them because I don’t belong to them. It’s OK for me not to be like them. It’s really OK. On the other hand, they were right. And that doesn’t feel good. They were right to not embrace me. They were right that I wasn’t them, that I wasn’t theirs.’ And who would want that?”
One of Newson’s strengths seems to be her ability to put aside questions like, “Do you ever wish you hadn’t been switched?” A question that seems natural for someone just hearing her story is not one that she spends much, if any, thinking about. This is the life she was given, she said.
“She’s the poster child for resiliency,” Wales said.
That resiliency comes, in large part, from Newson’s strong Christian faith, and her forthcoming book is reinforced by that faith.
Newson is a fiercely private person, so her decision to write and publish a book begs the question: Why now?
“I’m in the best place emotionally that I’ve ever been in my life,” Newson said.
It was her son Austin’s idea that she should tell her story in the form of a book.
“‘Mom, you need to tell your story,’” Newson recalled Austin saying to her. “‘Do you know how many people you could help with your story? If they could see what you went through and see who you are, you need to let them. Even if you only help one person, it would be worth it.’”
She began to look for a ghostwriter, but she wasn’t having any luck finding one. Then one day she noticed her cousin on Facebook was writing a book of her own and reached out to her to see if she knew a ghostwriter.
The cousin called her and convinced her to write it herself.
“‘Who better to tell your story than you?’” Newson said her cousin told her.
Newson then enrolled in the Book Creators program at Georgetown University, and she’s been working on her manuscript since October 2021.
It was not a natural thing for Newson. She’s an accountant. She prefers spreadsheets and numbers over word processors and words.
Accounting fit her personality. It was finite. There were definite answers. She had a sense of control, something that her life had sorely lacked from childhood.
“I’m very OCD and anal,” Newson said. “Which, a counselor has told me, given how I was raised, that was the one area I could control.”
Writing does not lend itself to those traits. It is a singular pursuit, an infuriating one at times, the creation of order out of chaos. On top of that, Newson’s subject matter required her to revisit countless documents she’d saved from her life, legal documents, stories from media outlets, and more.
She started writing the book because she believed Austin was right: There was something in her story that could prove inspirational or helpful to others. But in the writing of it, she found a measure of relief for herself.
“I’d always been an insomniac,” Newson said. “Since like the early ‘90s. It was so bad I had to take sleeping medication because my mind would never shut off. But now I can sleep. It’s like I just let go.”
She’s wrestled with the material and the writing of the book for six months now. She said once it’s done, she’ll be happy to close the chapter on that part of her life.
But it’s that part of her life that she uses for comparison to her current life, and after 64 years, Newson is most proud of the family she’s created with her husband, Scott, the same man who’d been by her side when she opened that DNA test result in the mail.
“It’s the exact opposite of how I was raised,” she said of her family. “They talk to me on the phone. We never end a conversation without saying ‘I love you.’ ... I’m there for them. They never have to doubt that they’re loved, that they’re cared for.”
Newson’s is a complicated story and far from a fairy tale. It doesn’t so much try to answer the question of “nature versus nurture,” but rather it presents a case study for neither nature nor nurture.
Shirley Newson was born Shirley Muñoz but grew up Shirley Morgan. She felt ill at ease as a Morgan, as if she didn’t belong. And she didn’t. She wasn’t a Morgan. But she wasn’t really a Muñoz, either. She was both. And she was neither.
She searched for belonging by looking to the past, and what she found failed to sustain her. So she forged ahead, despite an unknown nature and an unforgiving nurture, to build a life of her own. After ups and downs, she succeeded, and therein lies her story’s happy ending.