Monday, January 28, 2008

Out of the Cabbage Patch and Into the Fire

Last night I tuned in to one of my favorite NPR programs, Ira Glass' This American Life, which, if you're not familiar with it, is a collection of brilliantly composed vignettes highlighting bizzare, funny, poignant, often ironic aspects of life, told in true documentary fashion, where the storyteller never gets in the way of the subject. The third act of this episode, originally broadcast January 18, focused on the experience of workers in FAO Schwarz's marketing scheme to sell high-end dolls, its "Newborn Nursery Adoption Center."

From the doll manufacturer's website:
Twenty combinations of hair and eye color are available for adoptive parents to choose from, followed by the completion of the adoption application and choosing the baby's name. The doll arrives wrapped in a blanket and is then placed in the arm of the waiting mother. The center's "staff nurse" takes a photo of the mother and child, then receives an official adoption certificate, complete with footprint. Accessories for baby, including hats, booties and blankets, are for sale around the adoption center.

Ostensibly a story about prejudice toward racial minorities and people with disabilities with only a slight nod toward the adoption industry's commidification of children (a supervisor instructs staff never to mention the word"sell" in its "adoption interview" before it collects the "adoption fee"), the storyteller, in this case a sales associate ("nurse") recounts her experience of customer reactions when all the white babies sell out, leaving row upon row of minority babies lying unadopted in their "incubators."

Where to begin?
  • the obvious racism of customer's "adoptive" preferences?
  • the stereotypically gendered scripting of adoptive "little mommies?"
  • the callously accurate representation of the wholesale commodification of adoptees?
  • how about the normalization of generation falsified birth certificates?
  • how about the fact that the "babies" retail for over $100 (my one year old has a lovely baby doll we got for around nine bucks)?
If this little phenomenon isn't emblematic of everything that's wrong with traditional infant adoption, I don't know what is. And for me, personally, the image of the adoptive parent casually shopping the rows of infants of bassinets for the perfect chosen baby, is right out of my early childhood conception of "where babies come from." Ugh.

Now this stuff is probably old hat to most of you readers, but being that I'm an old school Vermont hippie, a bit out of touch with the wonders of American mass marketing, I hope you'll forgive my naivete. Can it really be that after all these years that nowhere in the chain of marketing command at either the doll manufacturer or retailer there was no one with a basic understanding of what's wrong adoption? *sigh*

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wind Song: A Tale of Two Mothers

It's been ten cold New England winters since I first met my mother who bore me and gave me away, and, somehow, twenty-five since my mother who raised me and passed on her demons died. If not for the fact of her death, I'm not sure when or if I ever would have searched.

Mom was fragile, you see. Commanding, domineering, emotionally tyrannical, but, by the time I really came to know her, broken at the core. I can only reconstruct her life now from the safety of my analytical side, piecing together the myths and stories, the fragments of childhood memory, and the results of my relentless and unsatisfying questions to my father, who prefers the emotional safety of the romanticized tales he tells himself now, after all is said and done. Sometime around 1960 she miscarried or delivered a stillborn baby, I'm not sure which; the stories changed over the years. She spoke of a grave, of a named baby, Mark. But then again, she also spoke of mysterious men in black vans watching the house, waiting to kidnap my sister and I. She described being left alone after delivery in a hospital room, bleeding for a long time. My father remarked once that a doctor attributed the event as a possible precursor to the "chemical imbalance" that unhinged her later. She told us as children stories of being followed, of being sexually assaulted in a telephone booth. My father denies knowledge of this. My father also suffers from the repressive legacy of generations of Calvinism. We'll never know; all we have is her stories, riveting and fantastic, and malleable.

I know her mother was crazy; I was sent to live with her for a time, and she would call me into her room when she was "receiving the transmissions on the wall....from 'them'" Just as I grew up with my mother's psychiatric hospitalizations, my mother grew up with her mother institutionalized in a Connecticut state hospital in the 1950's -- electroshock and compulsory hysterectomy the standard of care for the day. Her mother's father was well known as the village loony. Really, she didn't stand a chance. Between the genes, the lack of medical knowledge we have today and the sexist culture of her time, she never had the chance to be the person she was meant to be. Instead of art school, she moved from taking care of her father to taking care of mine. High school sweethearts, she "married up" to my father, son of a small glass factory owner, as part of a lifelong attempt to transcend her working class background. Dad went to college on the GI Bill, got a good job, bought a cute house, and she set up housekeeping. It was an Eisenhower-era dream. But the baby didn't come. Or when he did, he did not stay, and that never left her. She couldn't help but to pass that loss on to me.

More than anything, she wanted to be a good mother. And in many ways she was. Petrified of adoption agency social workers, she kept an obsessively immaculate house in the early years, always guarding against our "being taken back." Back to where, I always wondered? She fed, clothed and cared for my younger adoptive sister and I, bringing me to the library every day, making sure I could read before entering kindergarten. She hung cardboard signs labeling household items, even pets, to develop sight word vocabulary. She moved all of the furniture out of the dining room, tarped off the floor, and let us use the painted walls as an artist's canvas. She taught me how to begin to play the piano at four. The mental illness was a creeper. There were signs in the early days, but we were little; we didn't know. We didn't know, either, as the years progressed, that it was unusual to have upwards of sixty cats, a dozen dogs, and a house full of excrement because we were not allowed to have friends visit the house, nor were we allowed to visit others' houses, for fear of being stolen, of being taken from her. Because we were to be her saving grace, her raison d'etre, evidence of her social success.

But, of course, we were adoptees, my sister and I, so her plans didn't quite work out. I was suspended from school for the first time in first grade for setting a pile of dollar bills stolen from my grandfather on fire in the school cafeteria. The first of many suspensions, arrests and fires. My sister had what we know now to be fetal alcohol syndrome, which didn't even exist then; she dropped out of high school to live with an inner city drug dealer and had her car shot at around the time I first went to jail for selling way too much acid to an undercover cop.

Resentful of my mother's physical and emotional absence during my adolescence, angry at forced attendance at smoky, poorly facilitated group therapy at the psych ward where she spent so much time, when I was eighteen and she succumbed to meningitis and was, unbeknownst to us, dying in the hospital on Christmas, I refused to go see her, sick to death of her illness constantly hijacking our lives. I didn't get to say goodbye, didn't get to apologize for calling her a "fat, worthless bitch," didn't get to know her as an adult, didn't get to forgive her for not being able to mother, for keeping secrets and telling lies, didn't get to express the empathy possible only through the perspective of adulthood. We buried her on New Year's Eve.

I was not allowed to mention the mother who gave birth to me growing up. It was too threatening. I was not allowed to ask questions or consider search because "it would just kill your mother," according to my father, who in earlier times considered information about my origin his property but who later fully supported my search. It took me almost ten years after her death to get a life and out of jail on drug charges, years on Grateful Dead tour, playing in jam bands in Boulder in the 80's, travelling all over south Asia, and finally moving to Vermont, going to college, and becoming a teacher. I was readying to search, you see, but I needed to redeem myself before meeting my Other mother; I needed to look good on the surface; I needed to be as normal as possible as to avoid being rejected once again.

But that was not to be the case. By the time I was searching in the 90's, CT policy had changed to mutual consent facilitated by the placing agency (The Village for Families and Children...sounds benign, eh? almost quaint...). Outraged at the agency's gall to charge me hundreds of dollars to access my non-id and research potential contact (and probably some good, old fashioned avoidance), I searched on my own for a couple of years. With no luck, I sucked it up, paid the money, and waited. Contact was denied. No one in her family knew about me. She had "closed that chapter," according to the social worker (the same social worker who years later informed my sister over the telephone that her conception was a result of interfamilial rape...nice, huh?) Unknown to me, my half brother had discovered evidence of my existence and applied the necessary pressure for my mother to agree to meet me.


I stepped off the Vermont Transit bus into the parking lot of the Hartford, CT bus station, heart in my throat, dizzy, looking for the woman in the pictures who shared the eyes I had never seen anywhere before but the mirror. You see, I had failed again, too. In the time in between contact denial and our first meeting, I had sabotaged both my teaching career and my long term relationship, and my driver's license was suspended for not carrying insurance. So, in my 33rd year, the number of years Jesus lived on the earth (who says adoptees can't be narcissists?!) I slung my backpack over my shoulder and stepped down to meet, for the first time since birth, my mother. She was more nervous than I was. And when she opened up her arms to take me in, I was overwhelmed...not by the touch but by the smell. Wind Song. Prince Matchabelli. The smell of my mother, the only scent she ever wore. Our childhood Christmas presents every year to her. The scent of my fevered forehead being caressed, of the warm covers after a bad dream, of all the toddler memories of the "good years," long since supplanted by adoptee vitriol.

Do you remember the song from the Tv ads in the 60's? "Her wind song stays on your mind..."

It was miles in the car with her before I could speak, before I could get the left hemisphere of brain to function adequately enough after olfactory memory shock to be able to sort it out, who was who, who was dead, who was alive, who was my mother, and, really, I still don't have those answers. My mother -- I'm learning how to call her that now, "mother," after a lifetime of "birthmother;" the disloyal feelings are gone, my mother who raised me long gone, it became awkward with my half-sibs to keep calling her by her first name, and, since my search, the first mother community has claimed their rightful titles -- my mother and i have been through the mill. we've hugged and cried and argued; there has been apologies and forgiveness; there have been late nights swilling white wine out of a box and smoking joints (Can you imagine?! Smoking a joint with your mother?! My 50's era CT amom would roll over in her grave!); there have been arguments and accusations; there have been missed birthdays; there have been long periods of silence.

My mother still carries the pain of her forced relinquishment at seventeen, of wearing the fake wedding ring, of the home for unwed mothers in Boston, of giving birth alone, of being shamed and abandoned by her family, of keeping the shame a secret for thirty three years, of failing at her attmepts to get me back after signing the papers, of guilt for leaving me, of lying to her "real" children about my existence. She has suffered breast cancer, alcoholism, and a lifetime of abusive men. She tells me I'm intense, that I'm too much for her sometimes. I temper myself and my behavior. I choose my words carefully. I spared her the Verrier. I fear scaring her away. I have the same feelings of having to manage my relationship with her that i had with the mother who raised me. Things work best when we can just hang out and not mention relinquishment or growing up adopted. I've since stopped trying to forge emotionally meaningful and authentic relationship with her, as I have with my adoptive father. They can't do it. They weren't raised in the self-stroking psychological culture of the 60's and 70's. they are stoic New Englanders, both adoptive and birth families coming from generation upon generation of Puritan repression.

Betwixt annd between, right? That's our fate as adoptees? As much as I had two mothers, I have none. I watch my son with my wife and I'm just so damned grateful we get to keep him. At least I've done that, given another son a mother.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Policy on Adoptee Returns

This question might sound much more conservative than my life's political and personal choices would suggest, but whatever has happened to the ability to keep a commitment?

Okay, so culturally, we seem to be transitioning away from the "till death do us part" part of the standard marriage contract; we live in an economy that supports multiple job, career and geographic changes across the lifespan; and our President signs legislation with signing statements that amount to saying, "Well...I might not really follow this law if it doesn't suit me."

And the latest trend in negotiable or contingent commitments seem to be with the children we've adopted. The latest from Theresa's Digg involves an obviously deeply disturbed 14 year-old adoptee who brutally attacked a family member (Family deals with nightmare adoption). In typical Fox fashion, the intro reads, "
... not all adoptions are made in heaven, sometimes they turn into horror stories." Somehow, in the eight years since she adopted him, Rhonda Gary-Jackson's son went from "cute" and "animated" to a sociopath, according to her description. He's now on the block for being disowned although "Florida law doesn't allow her to un-adopt her son."

Of course it doesn't!! There's no such thing as to 'un-adopt,' legally, even in light of the increasing incidences of (euphemistically labeled) "disrupted" adoptions. Adoption's for life, get it? We're just not an ugly sweater to take back to WalMart. Yes, we can be a former firestarter, oppositional defiant, authority disordered, "troubled" and "angry" adopted teen, I can attest to that. Although my behavior never rose to the level of violence described in the press, I suspect that,
even if it had, my 50's era aparents, would never have even thought to consider shipping me back to the agency (although amom often did threaten relinquishment to either police custody or "the gypsies!"). Even though I still believe I should have been raised in my natural family, I'm confident that my aparents (despite all their faults and pathologies) were committed in their adoption.

In Bae Gang Shik's Transracial Korean Adoptee News there's discussion of a therapeutic ranch for "troubled" adoptees in Montana (Ranch raises hopes for adoptees). This piece (with subheaders like "Problems lurk beneath the surface" ooooh! scary, scary adopted demon spawn...look out!) describes a residential setting where, according to aparent comments , seems to do a good job providing treatment to kids with obvious trauma and attachment issues and helps to give parents tools necessary to help their children.

I'm not so sure, on:
The wind howls across the craggy landscape here, 5 miles from the Canadian border. There's plenty of physical activity and virtually nowhere to run. In the early days, Sterkel didn't have much of a treatment plan beyond keeping the kids busy and nurtured.
Yeah....why would a traumatized kid from an orphanage in Eastern Europe, Central America or south Florida, for that matter, need an actual treatment plan? I'm sure there's plenty of chores on the ranch, and we have a long cultural tradition of orphans doing chores, right? Chim-chiminy, chim-chiminy, chim chim cheroo....Please, sir, may I have some more?
And while therapeutic horse brushing (equine assisted psychotherapy - a methodology offered to my autistic son here in Vermont in lieu of actual school programming!) is available, "[t]raditional counseling, meanwhile, is available, but only at a parent's request." So who's calling the shots in terms of kids' treatment? Aparents? I can see it now..."I'm just not comfortable with Johnny processing so much about his biological family..." I remember during my teen years being referred to counseling through school, and when conversations made it around to identity issues, suddenly my adad just didn't have the money for the sessions any more and didn't feel a need to "air our family's dirty laundry" to others.

The article also sites staff telling kids that their "brains are screwed up," and they have a coding system for kids right out of Homeland Security:
Children are listed as green, yellow and red, based on the difficulty of finding replacement families for each. Their numbers have risen so dramatically that A Child's Waiting plans to build transitional housing specifically to accommodate that group, said Crissy Kolarik, co-director. "The red kids have the most significant issues, such as sexual predators," she said.
"Build transitional housing"?! Yeee-haw!! Looks like bizness is boomin'! That angry teenage adoptee gettin' on yer nerves? Well, shucks, send 'em on out to the demon spawn ranch, and we'll fix 'em up with another set a pardners!

Here's another gem:
"It takes a lot before Bill and I will cry 'uncle,'" Sterkel said. "But we have the staff to think about." From here, about one-third will return home, while another third -- mostly those 16 and older -- will move on to Job Corps, an education and vocational training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor...The remaining third will discover that their parents are relinquishing their rights...He rarely judges those adoptive parents who arrive at this painful conclusion. Sure, one couple sent a one-paragraph e-mail ("just incredibly lame," Sutley said). But for the most part, such families are held hostage -- especially when adoptees act out sexually or falsely allege abuse by their adoptive parents. "Sometimes, parents have no choice ... otherwise they risk losing the rest of their family." [emphasis mine]
...the "rest of the family?" The biologically connected rest of the family?

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And to top it all off, they also facilitate adoptee returns, or "double dipping" as some folks describe it, through the notorious A Child's Waiting agency. How many times can you sell a kid, really?

According to one aparent "held hostage" by her adopted child and left with "limited options,"

"All I can tell you is that we grieve for what might have been."


We grieve, too, but for different reasons...not for the loss of the dream of the perfect child who would heal our infertility, who would stand in as if he or she was our real child, who would never, ever be violent and unpredictable and volatile. We grieve for our own ghost parents, for the lives we never had, for the lack of a legal right to our own identity, and for our poor brothers and sisters in adoption, these poor wrecked kids from eastern Europe and Guatemala and Korea and California, Texas, Florida and New York, drug addicted, fetal alcohol, traumatized by abandonment and institutionalization, we grieve for you.

And we grieve especially for hope lost, promises broken, and a dream deferred

I'm not naive; I know these kids, and perhaps even little Jade (formerly) Poeteray have a lot going on and need some pretty intensive care. But when things get rough, they are our kids! They're our kids whether or not we knew their full background (quit yer whining! Not many of us adoptees know our background, and we're able to make it thought the day); they're our kids whether or not the agency lied (big surprise!caveat emptor, baby! And next time, employ some critical thinking on your way to saving the world one child at a time!); and they're our kids when they fuck up in conscious and unconscious expressions of their trauma and grief. While I acknowledge that, even with a biological child, we may feel forced to terminate parental rights in a situation where the child rapes a family member as described in the case above, or when that TPR somehow is in the teen's best interest in terms of treatment or adjudication, let's be honest here....would you be relinquishing this child this easily if he were born to you?

The promise of adoption is to parent forever. The dream of adoption is a loving home for a child who needs parents (not parents who want a child), and if we remember our Langston Hughes, what does happen to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Adoption Loss, Resilience & Cultural Identity

I've been thinking a lot about the possible relationship between how we identify ourselves culturally as adoptees, the dynamics of our response to the secrecy and shame of adoption, and the development of emotionally healthy and intellectually critical perspectives.

Adoptees know well how the social status ascribed to us plays out; we say, "I'm adopted." Usually not, "I was adopted," referring to a legal act in a moment of time; we say we are adopted; it's part of who we are, an integral component of our identity, in my opinion, whether we recognize it or not. We know well the implications of being adopted on our individual development, and we listen to many of our first moms talk about how their experiences of relinquishment contributed to their sense of identity, how the experience of giving up and living without their children influenced who they are as individuals.

I believe, too, that for some of us, as part of healthy emotional development, when we come into contact with other adoptees, with first mothers, sharing our stories and struggles and searches, we come to take our status as adopted as part of our cultural identity, our group identity; we name ourselves ("first mothers", "bastards"), form organizations, groups to network politically, socially and emotionally, and in becoming "proud bastards" or "angry adoptees," we healthily reclaim our adopted identities. Especially in light of the known personal and systemic adversities faced by those who experience the negative aspects of adoption (I feel like I'm tiptoeing around saying 'oppression' here), I think the process of group identity development is comparable to racial/ethnic/gender identity development for minorities, in that individuals tend to experience general movement from a limited awareness of 'self as other' to greater consciousness of the (usually negative) impact of difference, to an active search for positive identity (I believe this is an innate human characteristic, seen across cultures throughout history), to, finally and hopefully, achieving an internalized positive identity. In this way, "proud bastards" and "natural mothers" share political and social space with "black is beautiful," "gay pride" and "grrrl power."

So here's the question I keep coming back to (based on my assumptions outlined above):

Does our experience of adoption loss and its subsequent marginalization (for both adoptees and relinquishing mothers) lead us to a more critical worldview?

Associated thoughts/questions:
  • Do complex family dynamics and/or inherently complex family constructs lead to more complex cognition?
  • Does growing up with lies, suspicion and hypervigilance lead to a generalized critical view of power?
  • Is it by virtue of our adoption loss experience that we adoptees find so many of ourselves gadflies, de-bunkers of myth, exposers of lies, organizers, resistors, general crotchety pains in the ass who refuse to ignore 800 lb. gorillas in the room and recipients of oppositional defiant, authority disordered, borderline personality diagnoses in childhood ?!
And if so, so what? What are potential implications for further thought?

I am not generally a silver-linings type of guy (every one's got a touch of grey, ya know!), but I want to believe that there's lessons in human resiliency here. I want to believe that there really is some hope of reforming the adoption industry, or, better yet, knocking the whole thing down and starting from scratch in a way that serves orphaned and fostered children rather than the emotional needs of the bourgeoisie. Can we find ways, as folks caught up living and exploring the ramifications of that legal swipe of a pen, to take what sucks, turn it around on those who -- wittingly or unwittingly -- are complicit in the abuse, and make the world more honest and just?

Friday, December 28, 2007

why am i here?

Having, in the space of a year, gotten married, had a baby, started a restaurant (putting my family at great economic jeopardy), closed said restaurant, and having found myself unemployed with time on my hands for the first time in twenty-five years, I started wandering in the desert* of the adoption blogoshpere. Amongst the gems and the rubble, I was lucky to find Ungrateful Little Bastard, who said, "Contact denial is just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of adoption."

For sure, it is. When I first contacted my bmom, she refused contact, not doing much for the deepening cynicism and paranoid disorder that characterized "Jesus year" of 33. Synchronistically enough, however, it turns out her son, my half-brother, was at that time preparing for his marriage, and when he went to public records for a copy of his birth certificate was surprised to find himself not listed as the first live birth in the family. After repeated pestering of bmom, she finally discloses the deep, dark and shameful fact of my relinquishment to him. It was he who applied enough pressure over time for her to agree to meet me and begin a reunion that for while I'm deeply thankful for (don't wnt to sound ungrateful!), is still tenuous ten years later.

One huge thing that I've learned in reunion is that, while my whole life questioning and search was "all about the birthmother," the main gift has been relationship with my half-sibs, which continues to resonate and strengthen each passing year. Of course, that doesn't keep me from constantly and in both conscious and unconscious ways pushing my bmom, making emotional demands she's incapable of fulfilling, and wanting her to be her ghost-self, the rightful and present mother of that ghost-baby -- roly and poly and cute and smiling and loving with adoring eyes as my little (birth)son is, looking wordlessly deep into the soul of his mother.

For us, bmom and me, ongoing contact denial is a foregone conclusion because those ghost part of ourselves can never be together. That shamed part of her, forced into dissociative and cold detachment, denies contact with that outraged, screaming and abandoned part of me. We both have a core of inner sadness that stems from our mutually unwilling separation that occasionally, if the time and setting are right, we can see in each other and wordlessly acknowledge. But for the most part, she is frozen and I am pissed off. It feels like it falls to me, being of the 60-s era of abundant psychology and gratuitous self-reflection, to put the effort forth to forge the "healthier relationship," and I try, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a voice inside repeating, "But isn't it her job to come to me?"

To Theresa, thanks for your blog, the tears it inspired and for inspiring me to join the conversation. Thinking of your birthmother's denial of contact, my heart goes out to you; it's raw, I know. But I also know, especially if it comes to other birth relatives, it ain't over till it's over.

why am i here? to start to have these conversations again with my fellow clanfolk of the adoption diaspora...and, as i recognize somehow in hindsight, today is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of my adoptive mom's death....forty-three years old and it looks like i'm still waiting for permission to be a little....ungrateful...

* please tolerate ongoing archetypal adoptee references, i.e. Moses.