There are five million adopted people in the United States—one out of every 40 in the population. Florence Fisher, 47, is an adoptee who set out to find her natural parents and was successful only after 20 years of searching. As a result, in 1971 she founded ALMA (Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association), a nonprofit organization that helps adoptees over age 18 find their natural parents and parents locate the children they gave up. Florence Fisher is the author of The Search for Anna Fisher (Fawcett Publications, 1974), the story of finding her original family. She talked with Sally Moore of PEOPLE about the identity problems of adoptees.

What prompted you to start ALMA?

It came out of my own search and the realization that I wasn't alone. All adoptees think that there is no one out there who feels as they do. I found that there's a whole underground of people desperate for help, in pain, the way I was. There's a terrible need for communication. A search can be emotionally crippling.

How did you feel when you first suspected you were adopted?

When I was 7, I accidentally found a certificate of adoption with the name Anna Fisher. I had been renamed Florence. My adoptive mother would never answer when I asked who Anna was: she burned the certificate. Deep in my heart I knew it was me—but like most adoptees I didn't want it to be true. The name Fisher was the only clue I had.

When did you decide to look for your real parents?

After my adoptive mother died when I was 22, my adoptive father and the relatives all gathered around and completely ignored me. They started to argue over my mother's jewelry. I realized that they never considered me part of the family, though I had their name, Ladden. That night I called a cousin whom I trusted, and she finally told me the truth—I was adopted. I decided then to find my real parents.

Why did they give you up?

My mother was pregnant with me when she got married. She was 17 and my father was 18. My mother's family threatened to send her to a home for wayward girls if she did not put me up for adoption.

Why did you feel you had to make your search?

I had to know who I was. It's that simple, because life begins with birth, not adoption. I knew that until I looked at my mother I would never feel whole. I couldn't go on living with lies, with closed doors, being told I didn't have a right to know my own identity.

How do most adoptees feel about starting a search?

They're afraid of being considered ingrates. The first question you are always asked is: "Why are you doing this: weren't your adoptive parents good to you?" You're made to feel guilty and that guilt haunts every adoptee I deal with and me, too.

How do most adoptive parents feel if their children begin such a search?

Threatened and resentful. We try to educate adoptive parents that natural parents aren't to be feared—if the adoptive parents have nurtured a loving relationship with a child, they can't lose him.

Do most natural parents want to be found?

Yes. In the 600 cases I've helped all but three did—one was my own mother. Now she's changed her mind. I've watched hundreds of families reunite, and nearly all are hysterical with joy. They're desperate to be found.

Why did your mother not want to be found?

Fear. Most women are terrified to admit they have given children away.

Does she feel differently now?

Completely. It's taken almost five years but she's a changed person. It's very beautiful to see her "come out": every day she's more lovely. It's because she's free of it, she's at peace. When I look at her now I know I did the right thing.

And what was your real father's reaction?

He said, "Thank God. This is the most wonderful moment of my life." It turned out that he had been searching for me for years. He said, "Thank you for not giving up." I found him in 1970 and legally took his name soon after.

What about a natural mother's right to privacy?

She has none. From the rest of the world, yes, but not from her own child. I say a child doesn't sign a contract to be given away and isn't bound by it. All my mother did was transfer legal custody. I don't agree with the social-work theory that encourages a mother to "go on to a new life." What kind of new life is based on a lie? This is a society that says one is responsible for taking a life; it should be equally responsible forgiving a life.

What should adoptive parents be told about the child they adopt?

Everything possible. Like natural parents they need all the help they can get. They rarely ever get any records or any information from agencies—and it's terribly unfair.

What obstacles do adoptees encounter when they try to search?

They are almost insurmountable. Each state has its own laws and they are a mass of complexity and confusion. In no state does an adoptee have the right to gain access to information about his origins. Through a bureaucratic mistake, after several years of searching, I found the lawyer who arranged my adoption. It was the only name that had not been altered in the records. All I wanted was for him to look me in the face and tell me if I resembled my real mother. He threw me out of his office.

Is ALMA trying to change the laws?

We're going to file a class action on behalf of all adoptees. We do not advocate that records be opened to anyone but the adoptee, and he or she must be over 18. Our stand is that if natural or adoptive parents want to see records, there should be a process whereby they petition the court and show cause. Then let the judge decide.

Which are more helpful to adoptees, the state or private agencies?

The state, because there's no money involved. Private agencies are the worst—they play God. In certain states the agency can decide what information to give out. But on the whole, most agencies, private or public, refuse to help either the parents or the children. I have a woman now who is 70, and the state agency won't give out her own mother's name. It's insanity.

What do people fear most when they begin a search?

Finding their own parents dead. I have found adults can cope with whatever else they find out, even if their mother's a hooker or their father is on the Bowery. It's lies they can't deal with. One man found his mother in a mental institution. He told me, "At least now I know."

Do most reunited adoptees and parents make permanent relationships?

In 80 percent of the cases, yes. Some never do. We tell adoptees that they must be willing to accept that. After all, not all families like each other.

What about adoptees discovering they were born as a result of incest or rape?

They're afraid of that, of course, but they still want to know, particularly if they are going to have their own children.

Should you tell a child he's adopted?

Yes, and as early as possible—certainly by the time he's 5 because he's around other children and often they and their parents know. When adoptees find out—and they inevitably do—the worst shock is knowing they've been lied to.

How does ALMA help people who want to find their parents?

We don't conduct the search ourselves, but we do advise adoptees on how to go about their search, and we do offer a register service for both adoptees and natural parents. Then we try to match the listed parents and children. We're finding five or six matches a day now.

What case have you encountered that affected you the most?

I have an 80-year-old woman who gave up a daughter for adoption in 1918 after her husband was killed in W.W.I and she went into postpartum depression. Now she's afraid she'll die without ever seeing her daughter's face. Her chances are very slim.

How has finding your parents changed your life?

I was 42 years old when I found them. Only then did I really feel born—completely whole. Only then did I feel completely at peace with myself. When I first looked at my mother's face the pain of a lifetime went away.