A new eight-part Spotify Original podcast series, ‘Looking for Esther’, unearths the past of Scottish woman Esther Robertson. Esther, a woman of colour, had three different names before she was three years old. In 2018, a personal trauma encouraged her to finally discover the truth about her forced adoption and re-adoption in the 1960’s. Alongside partner, Gayle Anderson, as series writer and executive producer, this powerful memoir is Esther’s search for answers and for her birth mother.
We chat to both Esther and Gayle to find out more about the motivations behind the podcast, any challenges faced and what’s next…
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and your backgrounds?
E: Well I’ve had lots of jobs in my life. I’m now 61 and I was diagnosed with cancer, but had a lot of regrets. So that’s what led to the podcast really.
G: I’ve been Esther’s partner for the last 13 years. I’ve worked in magazine journalism for over 40 years and I used to edit Jackie magazine, quite an iconic magazine back in the day. I was a pop editor for 80’s bands, you know Duran Duran, George Michael. I’m a freelance writer now, and when Esther had the cancer treatment back in 2018, she said she had a lot of regrets in her life. One of them was trying to find her mum. I wanted to help as a partner, but the journalist side of me was also intrigued.
E: Gayle and I were on twitter one night and we saw a competition. It was for women of colour to come up with an idea for a podcast for Spotify UK scheme. Women of colour were to go down to Manchester and learn everything about podcasting in a week of podcast boot camp. I met these other lovely women and we chatted about our stories.
At the end of the week, we had to pitch our idea of a podcast. I pitched that I wanted to find out the truth about my adoption and I wanted to find my birth mother. Then a little while later, I got an email saying I had actually won the competition.
Over the last two years, you’ve been on a journey to search for the answers that complete your past. What encouraged you to embark on such a journey?
E: I always walked away from learning about the truth. I was always a little bit scared. But, after the cancer, I just felt strength to embark on this and actually do something about it. I thought now is the time to do it.
Tracing family history can be a complex and daunting task. Were there any challenges you faced?
E: Yeah there were, because we made it during covid. We felt very isolated.
G: All the interviews were on the phone, which normally in my day-to-day work that’s fine, as a journalist. But when you’re talking about emotional topics, or surprising people who have no idea you’re going to call them. It makes it tricky.
E: There was also my memory as well. I’m 61 and we’re talking about a long time ago.
You have been together for over 13 years, how was the experience of working together on this project?
G: It was very different, because we normally just have fun together. I’m quite a task master and a perfectionist, so Esther had to get used to me doing many takes of parts.
E: But then sometimes it would be just one take. It was dependent on the subject. A lot of the podcast is going over my old life. It was fun mixed with emotion.
G: Sometimes we’d just have to leave it for a day or two. But the great thing with Spotify is there was no deadline.
Why did you choose a podcast format?
E: Well the competition. I won a competition to make a podcast. But when I was at drama college, the lecturers always commented on my breathing and projecting. I felt a bit self-conscious about my voice.
But I just thought, what a way to tell my story in my own voice and not be criticised for it. My voice does change a lot in the podcast because there’s a lot of emotions. Your voice is affected by emotion. I wanted that to come out in the podcast and I feel I’ve done that.
I remember the first podcast I listened to – ‘This American Life’ – back in about 2013 or 14. I was so impressed by the amount of detail, the interviews. Just the narrative was incredible. Ever since then I’ve listened to podcasts that have a strong narrative, a lot of crime ones. I wanted to do something similar to that, but on an emotional level.
G: I’d also ghost-written Esther’s article for the Guardian a few years ago. It was nice doing it in my normal format, but it was limiting. It feels alive doing a podcast.
Do you have any advice for those who are in a similar position to you? Who face unknowns in their family and past? Where do they begin?
E: Set small goals. That’s what we did. We said we’ll do that amount in that day and we kept to it. It’s very emotional so stick to small steps. You’ll get to the end if you keep doing it that way.
G: I think the advice is to never give up. Do it in your time and when you’re ready. It doesn’t mean that you should just do it because other people think you should. If you don’t feel ready to, then don’t. You know when the time is right. Like Esther – she knew she had the strength and the resolve to do it when she did.
There are also no age limits. You’re never too old.
What are your opinions on the current state of the adoption and Foster care systems in the UK?
G: We didn’t go too much into that. It was more about the past than current adoption practises. With the podcast, we’re not casting blame or fault. That’s not what the podcast is about.
But what we tried to highlight is how much things have improved dramatically. Things that happened with Esther would not happen now.
E: Now, young people who are adopted have life letters from their adoptive parents about their birth parents, to read when they’re old enough. That would have been really helpful to me. But as Gayle said, it is not about casting blame. It’s just about telling my story.
Now you’ve finished this podcast series, what’s next for you in 2022?
E: We’re hoping to see if we can trace my birth father. We know that he’s an Airforce man and was based at Kirknewton in 1960. So we might do a podcast about finding my dad.
I also want to concentrate on my music. I produce my own music so I will be doing that. I don’t know what the future holds but we might trace my dad.
G: Yes – military records in America are good so we can start there. Just see what we can uncover. It would be wonderful because that’s the side of Esther that she knows nothing about.