Switched at Birth: Decades After Discovery, Gillette Woman Forges New Life (Part 2)

Shirley Muñoz Newson buries lifelong feelings of neglect and shame to find new purpose in telling her story

Shirley Muñoz Newson poses with John Carr, 77, who also was switched at birth, at a bookstore in Buckhannon, West Virginia during a book signing in September. (Courtesy photo from Shirley Muñoz Newson)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This story has been updated on November 12, 2023 as of 2:15 p.m. Mountain. 

Shirley Muñoz Newson released her memoir, “The Little Dark One: A True Story of Switched at Birth,” in July. In her first in-depth interview since the book’s release, she spoke with the Wyoming Truth about her life and what it means for her to finally find her voice. Check out part one here.

GILLETTE, Wyo.–It’s hard for Shirley Muñoz Newson to describe how it felt to learn she’d been switched at birth. On one hand, it validated her deep-rooted suspicion that she didn’t belong in the Morgan family. Apart from their physical differences, Newson always felt like an outsider and never felt loved by parents Jean and Jim—or the rest of the family.

On the eve of her 43rd birthday, Newson’s world was upended: She received DNA evidence that James and Jean were, in fact, not her biological parents. But she also felt a sense of peace, finally knowing her biological mother and family were out there—somewhere. 

Locating and getting to know them didn’t turn out as Newson expected. In some ways, her journey is just now beginning, as her wounds continue to heal, and she finally finds her voice.

It’s been an emotionally wrought journey, Newson, now 65, admitted. “I grew up in shame, hating myself,” she told the Wyoming Truth. “I felt abandoned and unloved, which only got worse as I got older.”

Pictured above is Polly Muñoz (then Polly Leyva) at age 19 in her sophomore photograph in the 1957 Campbell County High School yearbook. (Courtesy photo from Shirley Muñoz Newson)

Search for the truth

If she’d hoped that the Morgans, whom she calls the “people who raised her,” would ignore the DNA evidence and affirm that she was their daughter regardless of the science, she would have been wrong. Though Newson had not felt close to the Morgans since leaving home as a teen, they had maintained a strong relationship with her children.

Both James and Jean took the news as validation that Newson truly didn’t belong, she said, as they immediately tried to track down their biological daughter.

Newson hired a lawyer and Jean signed the petition to access her medical records from Banner Health, which owned the Gillette hospital in 1958. Newson asked the Morgans to keep the story mum until her lawyer could locate their biological daughter and her birth mother. Instead, the oldest Morgan daughter, Hilda, shared the news around  town and wrote an open letter to the Casper-Star Tribune under the headline: “Are you my sister?”

An adoption intermediary, who in Wyoming has legal access to birth and medical records, read the letter and within three hours tracked down the Morgans’ biological daughter: Debra Morgan Leyva DeLay, then living in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, Newson’s attorney hired a private investigator who identified her biological mother as Polly Muñoz, then Polly Leyva, who lived in Tremonton, Utah. Excited to learn her birth mother’s identity, Newson scoured a 1957 Campbell County High School yearbook and found Muñoz’s sophomore picture at age 19. (Her family were migrant workers, and she started high school two years late.) Muñoz was a dead ringer for Newson at the same age. 

“It was like looking in the mirror,” Newson recalled.“Finally, I looked like somebody.”

Lost daughters

Newson was nervous, but excited to contact Debra and her biological mother. Her first call was to Debra, but she wasn’t enthusiastic when Newson suggested a visit to Utah to meet them both.  She asked for Debra’s email address, so she could send photos of the Morgan family, but Debra gave her the wrong one because the email bounced back. Debra didn’t answer Newson’s subsequent phone calls.

Muñoz called Newson the next day.

“This is your mother, Polly,” Muñoz told her.

Muñoz said she was shocked by the news. She’d never suspected Debra wasn’t her biological daughter; Debra’s father was white, so her complexion didn’t raise any red flags. Much like Debra, Muñoz was lukewarm about meeting Newson.

Once again, Newson felt rejected. The two women eventually met in Gillette and went on to talk by phone every two to three months. They saw each other occasionally before Muñoz’s death in 2016, though they never bonded, according to Newson.

Shirley Muñoz Newson (then Shirley Morgan) is pictured in her senior photo at Campbell County High School in 1976. (Courtesy photo from Shirley Muñoz Newson)

Initially, Debra was well received by the Morgans. Newson said they hosted a party for her at James’ room in the assisted living center in Gillette, complete with a welcome banner, display of family photos and all the Morgans present.  Despite the warm reception, Debra also never forged a close relationship with her biological family, Newson said.

Debra died on Sept. 28, 2006 in Arizona, while Jean passed away in December 2018.

Ironically, Newson noted, both she and Debra were rejected by their mothers.

New beginnings

Newson forged close ties with her biological aunts, uncles and cousins in Worland, including her Aunt Mary, whom she frequently visits. Likewise, Newson keeps in touch with the Morgan cousins, who always accepted her, she said.

Newson doesn’t regret taking the DNA test. The experience, though hard, led to many positives, including Newson’s commitment to form her own close-knit family. Today, she is happily married to her long-time friend, Scott, and is the mother of four adult children – Chris, TJ, Lindsey and Austin, whom she adopted, and Scott’s daughters, Jen and Leah.

It was Austin, in fact, who encouraged her to write the book. Speaking to the Wyoming Truth, Austin said he’s never seen his mother so happy and confident: “She’s inspiring others with her strength and resilience.”

In October 2021, Newson enrolled in a Book Creators program through Georgetown University. The book was supposed to be completed in six months, but as Newson learned, opening up her trauma was challenging and led her to seek counseling to combat a post-traumatic stress disorder she had worked to tamp down.

Newson hadn’t realized the toll that her past had taken on her life. She developed  two autoimmune diseases that required multiple surgeries to fuse her left and right sacroiliac joints, as well as months of physical therapy.

Today, Newson said she feels healthy and strong. She hopes to use her own story to do public speaking engagements to help others suffering from trauma.

Ultimately, she credits God for guiding her down this path.

“He has always watched over me and took care of me,” she said. “And my book and everything about it fell into place. I just feel that this was all God’s plan.”

Most recently, Newson flew to West Virginia to meet John Carr, 77, who also was switched at birth. Carr found Newson after reading an article in a Gillette newspaper about the impending book release. He invited her to visit, and the two established an immediate connection.

“I was able to understand what he was going through,” Newson said. “Nobody else who hasn’t experienced it can truly understand what it’s like.”

Newson is gratified by the number of people who reach out to share stories of their own family dysfunctions. Through them, she is learning to heal her own wounds.

“I always felt I had to hide—like I had some dark secret,” Newson said. “And now, I’m not ashamed of who I am. I feel good.”

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