Sunday, May 21, 2006

Herding Cats, Part 3, "Bastard Nation, A Band Apart"

In Part 2 of Herding Cats I described the how the organizational structure of the American Adoption Congress determined its primary focus and limited its ability to lead a national campaign to reform adoption records access laws. In this section I will discuss Bastard Nation, its organizational structure and its capacity for national leadership.

The story of the creation of Bastard Nation has been repeated numerous times, and can be found on the BN website. In short, a varied group, consisting primarily of adoptees, began a discourse on the internet Usenet newsgroup alt.adoption though the use of signature files at the end of their posts identifying themselves as functionaries in a fictitious organization named Bastard Nation. The discourse was highly charged, many felt that using the name Bastard Nation and, indeed, using the term “bastard”, let alone to identify with the term, was offensive in the extreme. Many of the original Bastard Nationals, the self-named Founding Foundlings, felt the energy this discourse was generating was entertaining, stimulating, and, in the end, held power beyond the relatively small world of the internet adoption community. Among these early Bastards, Marley Greiner, Damsel Plum, Lainie Petersen and Shea Grimm decided to form an actual organization out of this informal internet network.

From the first, Shea, Damsel, Marley and the other Founding Foundlings of Bastard Nation determined that BN would be adoptee-led. These early leaders had experienced first-hand the legacy of adoption-professional advocacy strategies of the AAC, and strongly believed that the best way to shift the discourse of adoption reform was to wrest control of the movement from the professional class. Bastard Nation remains the sole adoptee-led adoption organization in the United States.

Shea Grimm has written that the transition from informal network to real-world organization came about so quickly that it surprised her, which is remarkable considering that she led the team that formed Bastard Nation. She made the decision to form Bastard Nation as a 501(c)4 non-profit, as opposed to a 501(c)3. This marked BN profoundly different from the AAC, not only in its Mission, but also in its major activities.

501(c)4’s may accept individual and corporate donations, but these gifts are not tax-deductible. 501(c)4’s may not apply for nor accept foundation grants. These strictures limit fiscal development, but as a trade-off, 501c4’s may devote their entire organizational resources to political organizing and advocacy. This placed Bastard Nation at an immediate advantage over the AAC in terms of fundraising strategies, because every dollar BN raised could be devoted to direct Open Records advocacy while the AAC could only use 20% or less of its monies directly in the same effort. This applies not only to money, but to organizational expenditures of resources; i.e. staff time and activities.

Bastard Nation’s Mission and activities are narrowly focused on the assertion of adoptee rights, specifically the right to unlimited access to original birth records. Like the AAC, BN hosted national conferences for the first five years of its existence, but the primary purpose of these conferences were to strategize and hone tactics for contemporary and planned legislative actions. Because of this narrow focus, people who were attracted to join BN did so with the expectation that they would learn to become effective activists.

Bastard Nation was modeled, consciously or not, on the model of a revolutionary cadre. At the top of the organization was the Executive Committee (ExecComm), originally consisting of Ms. Grimm, Plum, Greiner and Lainie Petersen (who resigned for personal reasons after one month. I replaced Ms. Petersen at the first BN National Conference in 1997 and resigned from leadership in 2001), who also functioned as the Board of the non-profit. Various subcommittees were formed to distribute work and responsibilities, but all committee members served at the pleasure of the ExecComm. This narrow locus of power meant BN had greater flexibility than larger, bureaucracy-bound, groups, like the AAC, which tend to be risk-averse. Almost immediately after launching the organization at their first national conference, BN demonstrated this flexibility by planning what became the Measure 58 campaign, the first adoption records access reform ballot initiative. At the same time, Bastard Nation weighed in on legislative campaigns in other states, including providing guidance and resources to the successful campaign in Alabama.

The win in Oregon proved that Bastard Nation’s strategies, including adoptee-led campaigns and the focus on civil rights, had resonance in the general public, and more importantly, could win. The success also highlighted the structural weaknesses in BN. Like the AAC, BN is completely staffed by volunteers. Hewing to the Internet zeitgeist that that allowed it to flourish, BN has had no central office, nor little of the infrastructure of traditional political organizations. Leaders donated the funds to run day-to-day operations; such as website and printing costs, and events like the national conferences became underwritten by generous individuals within the organization. BN went from being a small internet phenomenon to a national adoption political player in a year, but was limited by a lack of planning to foster fundraising and membership growth. This limitation still hobbles Bastard Nation.

Maureen Flatley, veteran political operative, gave a presentation at BN’s Third Annual National Conference in Atlantic City which outlined some of the challenges to risk-embracing, cutting-edge political organizations. She noted that the effective life-span of organizations like Queer Nation and Act Up was an average of four or five years before either organizational entropy or external political change served to strip cutting-edge groups of their power to shake things up and they either become more mainstream or more marginalized. And as Bastard Nation evolved from a band of political and cultural “outlaws” to a group with a seat at the table of the national discourse on adoption politics by virtue of the win in Oregon, it became apparent that the organization was limited by its own organizational and cultural identity to mature into this role.

Internal discussions began on these matters soon after Measure 58’s victory, with some suggesting that the very name of the organization, which had garnered it cultural power and notoriety, should be jettisoned for something less offensive. (One suggestion was “BNARO,” an acronym for “Bastard Nation: the Adoptee Rights Organization”) While a few argued that this would make BN more palatable within the socially conservative halls of state legislatures and Washington, D.C., a significant core of leaders and longtime members felt this would be an abdication of the principles under which the group had been founded. As the terms of political discourse were debated, its cultural work, pioneered by Damsel Plum and Charles Filius among others, which was at the center of BN’s inception, took a secondary, less “serious” role. This cultural work, which often used humor and shock, even became viewed as a potential liability to BN’s political work.

At the end of the day, these shifts meant Bastard Nation had become less of an unmediated site of play and discovery, less of a “fun” edgy entity, and more like a mainstream political group. This created an increased interest in membership among adult adoptees who were serious about legislative reform, but also a engendered a decreased interest in BN by those who were more cultural, than political, warriors. This shifting identity, in combination with the underlying difficulties of organizing adoptees (see Herding Cats, Part 1), has had no significant bearing on Bastard Nation’s membership numbers, which have remained static since its beginning.

As a result of this internal discourse, Bastard Nation has evolved from a more broadly based cultural discourse on adoption and adult adoptees into a training organization for adult adoptees and their supporters in legislative campaigns. This shift should not be slighted out of hand, work in leadership development is a necessary step in a successful national strategy to open records. For instance, BNer Janet Allen of New Hampshire used her BN training and support to successfully run for a seat in the legislature. where she was able to help shepherd their clean Open Records bill into law.

But the adoption records access reform movement has also had to recognize that individual victories have not added up to a national strategy. There was much optimistic talk after Oregon, in which Open Records garnered 600,000 votes from the general public, of a “tipping point” effect, a victory so convincing that it could be exported to different states. We see, however, that the same arguments that prevailed in one state remain unconvincing in another. The realization that the best arguments, of and by themselves, do not automatically prevail was a hard one to accept. The question as always is, where do we go from here?

Bastard Nation has carved out an important role in adoption records access legislative reform as a training ground for effective leaders and as a core base of political activism. The AAC, notwithstanding my critique of its political strategies and structure, also has an important position in the reform movement, if for no other reason than it has demonstrated stability and the capacity to sustain an educational program positive to adoption records access reform for nearly thirty years. Both organizations have reached static thresholds of their capacity to lead a national strategy for Opening Records. In Part Four of Herding Cats I will outline suggestions for the next level the movement needs to attain to achieve success.

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Herding Cats, Part 2, “The American Adoption Congress: Class is in Session”

In part one of “Herding Cats” I provided a brief description of the difficulties in formulating a national legislative strategy to reform adoption records access. I then outlined the differing strategies of two national adoption reform organizations, the American Adoption Congress and Bastard Nation, and described how these organizations have historically implemented their strategies. I ended by noting that although the AAC and BN have had disagreements in strategies and tactics, the greatest challenge both organizations face is from the lack of capacity to fully realize their policies.

Both the AAC and Bastard Nation have relatively small memberships and, significantly for organizations engaged in national politics, small donor bases. This reflects in part the larger social matrix that these groups inhabit. Adoption reform is not, and has never been, a mass movement, although there are certainly enough adult adoptees, parents of origin and adoptive parents to create one. Adoption reform politics has historically been a small group movement, comprised at any given time by motivated individuals and their supporters. The vast majority of adult adoptees have behaved as if they are uninterested in the political movement and campaigns to assert their rights. In part this is because adult adoptees are atomized within the larger culture; there are no adult adoptee ghettos or factories to act as focal points for shared culture, issue identification and leadership development. One of the few places where adult adoptees can congregate and develop what can be described as the pre-political consciousness is in search and support groups. However, since the main thrust of search and support groups is the individual search narratives of the participants, there is an emphasis on therapeutic rather than political remedies for adult adoptee situations and grievances.

Neither the AAC nor BN has been successful in activating mass numbers of adult adoptees in their legislative campaigns. An analysis of the structures of both organizations suggests why the cultures of both organizations work against the mass mobilizations necessary to carry out national political work. In this section I will look at how the AAC’s structure determines its national advocacy strategy.

The American Adoption Congress is a 501(c)3 non-profit public charity, with the chartered objective of providing “education regarding adoption issues.” The AAC’s Mission Statement may be found by following this link.

In a political context, the AAC’s status as a 501(c)3 means that while it may qualify for tax-deductible donations and foundation grants but it must limit the amount of resources it may direct towards political advocacy. I don’t presently have the AAC’s financials, but I think that its safe to infer from their activities that the main part of their expenditures go to pay for their national and regional conferences. The AAC has had no paid staff, although they did create a paid executive director position in the late 1990’s for a time, but this position was jettisoned after a short time after an internal controversy over the fiscal prudence of the decision. Notwithstanding the dedication and hard work by individual AAC members and leaders in the adoption reform movement, all-volunteer staffing combined with the structural relegation of political work to a small percentage of overall activities render the AAC a weak organization to implement a coherent national political strategy.

In addition to structural and organizational handicaps, the main activities of the AAC highlights another highly problematic dynamic in its advocacy, the inclusion and sometime leadership of adoption professionals in the processes of political development. By folding political advocacy under the rubric of education, the AAC has ceded a great deal of ground in the process of organizational identity framing and issue identification to “experts”, who have their own professional and political perspectives and objectives.

The adoption community has been described as a three-legged stool consisting of what is termed the Adoption Triad; Birth Parents, Adoptees and Adoptive Parents. In reality, the adoption community in general, and the adoption reform movement in particular, has four legs; parents of origin, adoptees, adoptive parents and adoption professionals. By making themselves invisible within the adoption reform movement, adoption professionals have disguised not only their power, but their motivations, objectives, and strategies. But why is this problematic, especially since many of the adoption professionals involved in adoption and records access reform are themselves members of the self-described Adoption Triad and genuinely feel they are working toward the greater good of members of the Triad?

Adoption in the United States is a creature of legislation. There is no common law precedent for adoption (English Common Law valorizes blood ties and confers almost no legitimacy on adoption). In creating adoption from whole cloth, legislatures relied on the expertise of adoption workers who were in the beginning stages of becoming professionals, indeed the creation of modern adoption through statute and the rise of professional social work go hand in hand. As the subjects of this statutory creation, families of origin, adoptees and adoptive families were marginalized, their experiences and voices discounted. Adoptive parents were first to break free and advocate for themselves on the basis of consumer rights. Parents of origin and adult adoptees followed, as they became aware that they had grievances as well with existing laws and practices. Even so, adoption professionals have never surrendered their authority to define what is best for the institution of adoption and the well-being of its subject populations. Interestingly enough, this is generally true whether adoption professionals are arguing for or against specific adoption reform. The presumption of authority by adoption professionals to mediate and authenticate the adoption experience as a whole, and adoption reform in particular, is an impediment to the adoption reform movement’s political maturity. Just as in its creation, the experiences and voices of the actual people impacted by adoption are today marginalized and ignored while legislatures differ to adoption professionals.

The AAC presents itself as providing a service to the general public by providing a forum for adoption professionals who agree with their mission through its conferences and publications. By identifying itself with “experts” and professionals, the AAC has risked alienating members of the adoption community who may support adoption reform, but who may not wish to have their experiences defined or their advocacy mediated by adoption professionals. In fact, if it can be said that groups are generally comprised of self-selected individuals, the AAC may be said to be composed of individuals who do not mind the authority and mediation of the adoption professional class. This is a severe self-limitation on growth for the AAC regardless of its organizational structure.

Next, “Bastard Nation: A Band Apart”

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Herding Cats: National Strategies for Adoption Records Access Reform

The campaign to Open Records to adult adoptees is in actuality forty-five campaigns. Kansas, Alaska, Oregon, Alabama and New Hampshire have Open Records. All other states have restrictions on access. Tennessee has Open Records but also has the only state enforced contact veto, which has made its inclusion in lists of Open Records states problematic and contentious. Mounting one successful state grassroots legislative campaign is arduous, expensive and fraught with risks. Complicating the map is the fact that each state has its own more or less unique set of adoption laws, with completely different histories of enactment and narratives of legislative intent. State legislatures act with self-conscious autonomy, almost insularity, so success in an Open Records campaign in one state doesn’t ensure that a campaign in an adjacent state will prove easier.

At this point in time the United States is solidly polarized along lines described as “conservative” and “liberal”, red and blue states. Nearly every issue of importance is picked over by conservative and liberal cadres and frames are produced consistent with ideological party lines. Everything from abortion to the size of government, marriage, what constitutes a family, is framed to fit within the conservative/liberal dichotomy. Adoption reform, Open Records reform in particular, confounds this framing process. You can look at the legislative histories of Open Records from state to state and be unable to discern any consistent ideological pattern. Sometimes conservative legislators champion adoptee rights, sometimes liberal, often times both liberals and conservatives oppose adoptee rights, sharing the same frames. To observe this phenomenon in reverse, look at the legislative history of so-called “Safe Haven” laws; regardless of whether the sponsors of these bills are arch-conservatives or text-book knee-jerk liblabs, they all used the same rhetorical lexicon. If you wore a blindfold you would be completely unable to tell who was who.

Legislatures are a culture unto themselves, and successful grassroots efforts need personnel who understand this culture and are able to create and foster positive relationships with individual legislators. The successful records access reform campaigns have benefited from having a sound inside player, either a member of the legislature or an accomplished lobbyist, guide the effort. As noted, these successes have been few and far between, and were a combination of diligent and difficult effort combined with fortuitous timing. More common are the ten or more annual efforts that get stalled in committee or achieve death by amendment, led by volunteer lobbyists with limited experience. Sometimes there is a strategic objective in pursuing legislation that goes nowhere, it can create positive relationships if the activists handle themselves and their troops correctly by demonstrating knowledge of the legislatures protocols and culture, by showing that they are “players”. More often than not, though, these haphazard and ill-conceived efforts just gum up the works for a session and then fade away.

As I noted in an earlier blog, the main focus of legislatures is not on adoption law, and the individual members with an interest and knowledge of adoption are often the most resistant to reform. There are many reasons why this should be, many times legislators are interested in adoption because they are adoptive parents, and, having benefited from the system as it is, may be resistant to calls to change this system. Some of these adoptive parent legislators have strong personal and/or professional ties with the adoption agencies or facilitators who constitute the major opponents of Open Records. To many people there is no greater boon than to be given a child, and such a gift can incur a high degree of loyalty from the recipient. In recent years, however, a significant number of legislators with an interest in adoption are adult adoptees themselves or adoptive parents who see the benefit of adoptee rights for their children.

In light of the strategic and tactical complexity of achieving Open Records, it is paramount that there be a national organization to coordinate communication and resources for state efforts. Unfortunately, planning and executing forty-five campaigns is, at this point, beyond the capacity of any of the existing national adoption reform groups.

The two most prominent national adoption reform groups, the American Adoption Congress and Bastard Nation, have ostensibly similar objectives regarding Open Records, but take two very different paths in formulating their national strategies.

The AAC supports autonomous local legislative campaigns, often with the participation of local AAC members, but sometimes without. The AAC’s support is generally limited to publicity through their online and paper publications and letter writing campaigns, but in the past has included cash donations and legal support in pertinent legal actions. They also have provided personnel to deliver testimony at hearings and in the media. The legislation these autonomous local groups have conceived and negotiated is a mixed bag, everything from pure Open Records bills through various bills compromised by disclosure and contact vetoes, even bills strengthening mutual consent registries. Because the AAC’s practice in supporting these autonomous groups is also policy, the AAC has actively discouraged criticism of specific bills by “outsiders”, that is people outside the state in question. Sometimes this proscription against critique has been applied to critics who reside within the state but are “outsiders” because they aren’t members of the autonomous lobbying group or committee. This “big tent” approach has allowed the AAC to maintain a national profile without having to actually lead a campaign, since basically anyone with the ambition to lead a state campaign is made welcome. The drawback is that the AAC is thus everything to everybody, and can’t speak with a unified coherent message, which places it in an ambiguous position for a national leader. The AAC is also at a strategic disadvantage since it has ceded the power to discipline and control the autonomous organizations and has relegated itself to being the tail wagged by as many as ten state organizations in any given legislative session.

Bastard Nation’s approach is more traditional for a national advocacy group. It takes positions consistent with its Mission to Open Records. Bastard Nation supports state efforts to legislate unrestricted access to birth certificates whether the local campaign is BN led or not, but on the condition that changes in bill language that restrict access will trigger BN’s forceful opposition. This support is similar to the AAC’s; publicity through electronic and other media, strategic and tactical support from veteran organizers, and cash donations. Over the years Bastard Nation has been burned by local committees that began promoting unrestricted access legislation but ended up promoting bills with contact and disclosure vetoes or other compromises BN found unacceptable. Tactically, BN finds it more comfortable to support local efforts that are either led by BN members or organizations that have a strong BN presence. The advantages of this strategy is that there is no question about what Bastard Nation stands for and that BN may exert pressure and a certain amount of discipline on local adoption reform groups. The downside is that grassroots organizations may diverge from Bastard Nation’s Mission, and resent the result; a hail storm of emails and letters and hearing testimony from a national adoption reform organization against a bill in which they’re invested.

The two divergent national strategies of the AAC and BN were forged in conflict. Almost from its inception, Bastard Nation used its resources to attempt to defeat reform bills supported by the AAC that contained restrictions on access. This strategy was condemned by many, who felt that adoption reformers should present a “united front” against a common foe, and hardened rather than softened the AAC policy that “outsiders” should have no voice in state legislative matters (except when it came time to write letters of support). For its part, Bastard Nation has never wavered in its commitment to defeat bills that it determines undermine adoptee rights.

The main challenge to both the AAC and BN is not each other, but in low membership and numbers of committed (not to mention trained and experienced) activists. I will be writing in future blogs about the challenges of increasing membership and enhancing the capacity for leadership development on a national level, and will posit possible strategies.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Identity Theft and Recovery: Late Discovery Adoptees

(This originally appeared in the Winter 2000 newletter pubished by the Post Adoption Center for Education and Research)

“Our law emphasizes the right of the child. It demands that children be told the truth, that they are adopted. Sometimes we think it cruel to tell a person the truth (first as a child, later as an adult). But that view reflects a colonialist attitude. Only the colonizer refuses to respect the identity of the colonized." (Graciela Fernandez Meijide, member of the Argentine Congress, on the 1997 law making it mandatory that adopted children be told they are adopted. From “Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina”, Rita Arditti, University of California Press, 1999.)

The email message I received tonight was not unusual. In the months since I started the Late Discovery Adoptee List on the Internet, I get at least one such post a week. The man who wrote me had just discovered that he was adopted and was grateful to communicate with someone like himself. Like many Late Discovery Adoptees, his story was very similar to mine. I remember when I first found out I was adopted, I felt like I was the only fool on earth who hadn’t known, and possibly the only person to find out they were adopted when they were grown.

I discovered I was adopted when I was 36, shortly after the death of my mother. My father had passed away a few months before, and as their only child it was up to me to make her funeral arrangements and clean out her home. While sorting through family photographs, letters, and official papers, I found the documents that first informed me of my adoption.

I felt as if the ground opened up beneath my feet and I was falling into an abyss. This free-fall lasted for two- and-a-half years. Who was I? Why had the people who were supposed to love me and protect me lied to me my entire life? I had to meet many other adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents before I could begin to answer these questions.

There are many books available on adopting, on adoption, on being adopted. There is plenty of advice to prospective adoptive parents about when to tell their children they were adopted. Although there is a great deal of discussion about when to tell your children they are adopted, very few touch on why you should tell them in the first place. It is assumed to be a given. It is as if the choice not to tell is so wrong it is taboo to even speak about it. I’ve learned that the things that cannot be said become very powerful.

When I finally reached out to other adoptees through a local support group, I found we had much in common such as the longing for grounding in our identity and the questioning of our “official” stories. I found the emphasis on search in this group, and others I contacted at that time, confusing and frightening. I wasn’t ready to search. As a friend remarked to me when I told him I wasn’t even considering locating my birth family at that time, “Who needs more people to resent?”

Isolated, I simmered in my anger and resentment. I finally met another like me, online, and we shared war stories through email. Slowly, through posting my story on the Internet use-net group, alt.adoption, I found six or seven more. Shea Grimm of Bastard Nation asked me if I would like to make a presentation about the experiences of adoptees like me at the First Annual BN Conference. I accepted reluctantly because I had no credentials relevant to the subject other than my own life story. I sent out a questionnaire to the adoptees with whom I had corresponded, and from the dozen responses I forged some general observations about us.

I found that writing the presentation, “Late Discovery Adoptees: Are You Adopted? Are You Sure?” was a crucial turning point for me. For one thing, it exhausted the rage I had held for years against my parents. Not only was I able to place myself in an understandable context, but my adoptive parents as well. I went back to the place I had left them when I read the first adoption document with my name on it, and I returned to mourning them.

Over the last eight years I’ve been in contact with hundreds of people like me — people who found out their true history as adults. If I’ve met so many, how many more are out there? How many more have yet to discover? When I was adopted back in the ’50s, adoption was still deeply wrapped in shame. Shame of illegitimacy, shame of infertility. My parents’ decision not to tell me has a certain dysfunctional logic. Many of the stigmas that stained past attitudes about adoption have been lifted, but members of the triad still face many conflicting attitudes and social prejudices. Adoption as a means of forming a family still suffers by being “different.” The temptation to sidestep the pressures of “difference” by denying the reality of a child’s adoption is still compelling.

I enjoy speaking with groups of prospective adoptive parents. I usually meet them in pre-adoptive classes, where I give them the benefit of my own experience. However, the adoptive families who listen attentively in parenting classes, meet in support groups, or keep abreast of adoption issues in newsletters are the ones who need to hear my message the least. The parents who manage to rearrange their entire lives around the fiction their children are not adopted stay far away from such counsel. They are instead out there pretending to be “normal.”

The quote at the beginning of this article intrigues me. It rings true to me, yet is dissonant with the memories of my parents’ love for me. Can we be colonized by those entrusted to love and care for us without condition? Of course we can, and the lie that creates Late Discovery Adoptees is only one remarkable motif in a discordant symphony of family dysfunction. I feel the only resolution to this contradiction is to bear witness, and encourage all the others who have had their truth stolen from them to come out of the shadows.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

News and Views: Brit Annoyed Wanking into Cup No Longer Confers Anonymity,,1746867,00.html

In the April 5th Guardian Unlimited (UK), columnist Marcel Berlins complains that the new law conferring the right to identity to Britain’s donor-conceived by outlawing anonymous sperm donations has already dealt a death-blow to the sperm donor biz. He offers no data to back up his gloomy analysis, other than the personal observation that the specter of one of his progeny appearing later would have put him off when, back in the day he used to jack off in a sperm bank cup in order to afford the odd pint and shepherd’s pie. Berlins has no desire to face the product of his commercial exploits. To him it was a wank, pure and simple. There is a difference, though, between young Marcel polishing his bishop in a clinic WC and young Marcel sitting at home in the lavvie polishing the self-same bishop; for one, no one gave him cab fare for popping off at home… For another, it is highly improbable (if not, to give the Devil his due, statistically impossible) for anyone to have gotten pregnant as a result of Marcel’s private furies, while the whole point of his actions at the clinic were to get somebody great with child. Intention is karma, said the Buddha.

What’s overlooked in both Berlins’ column and the comments from readers is the dissonance between the marketing claims that clinics make to prospective parents on the high caliber of their donors and the portrait of the average donor Berlins paints. Clinics promise material to prospective parents from donors who embody the highest physical, moral and social qualities. Berlins suggests that instead donors are wankers for pay who don’t want to deal with the mess afterwards. It makes one wonder whether these qualities and attitudes are inheritable….

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Saw your first ship sink and drown

from rocking of the boat

and all that could not sink or swim

was just left there to float

I won't leave you drifting down

but whoa it makes me wild

with thirty years upon my head

to have you call me child

Ship of fools

on a cruel sea

Ship of fools

sail away from me... *

One had better develop a thick suit of psychic armor before entering the playing fields of politics, all the more so if one is an adult adoptee. Prepare to be called a child and worse, by provincial Babbitts aspiring to be Solomons. Remember that the primary task of legislatures is to divide tax revenues into gift packets of boodle targeted toward those person and interests who keep the legislators in office, as it were at the trough, and that "do-gooder" legislation like open records bills are viewed as a diversion of energies and time from the real business at hand. Be prepared to hear how "hard" the issue of sealed adoption records is for these poor politicians to parse, since most of them haven't even a rudimentary understanding of what the adoption laws of their state actually say or how adoption was historically or is currently practiced in their state. Be prepared to attempt to educate them on the history and contemporary practice of adoption, and then be prepared for them to toss your legisative packets overboard as excess baggage when they sense the waters are getting choppy. Be prepared to come to the understanding that in the matter of adoption law, legislatures are in the business of mythic preservation, not reform. Be prepared to be invited to board this ship of fools, but do so at your peril...

* "Ship of Fools", Grateful Dead 1974

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Are You Adopted?
Are You Sure?


I'd like to note, right from the start, that I am not an adoption professional nor do I hold any credentials as a psychologist or academic researcher. I am, by profession, a building contractor, so this is a new experience for me. The observations I am putting forth are done so with humility, and with the realization that my methodologies may be suspect. Please bear with me, and temper your review of my materials and criticisms of my analysis accordingly. I would not have attempted to undertake the study of LDA's if there were existing research available to me, so this is an attempt to fill a void concerning a phenomenon that is, by its nature, obscure and marginalized.
Six and a half years ago, the last place I would have imagined myself being would have been a conference of adoption activists. I was in my mid thirties, happily married, awaiting the birth of my third child. I was grieving the death of my father the previous fall, and monitoring the deteriorating health of my mother, who had been hospitalized and treated for cancer two years before, and who, after numerous therapies, had been diagnosed with a relapse.
It was a trying time. I was torn between the needs of my mother, who lived in a different part of the state and my extremely pregnant wife.
My mother passed away on January 21, 1991. I had made arrangements to fly down before her death, and kept my reservations so I could take care of her funeral and empty the house that she and my father had rented.
I had an emotion filled week. My mother was a packrat, and kept everything; out of date telephone directories and shoe boxes with old shoes she had worn out filled her house to the gunnels. I rented a giant dumpster for most of the stuff, sold some of the furnishings, and packed a couple of suitcases with family photos and letters. I flew back to the Bay Area knowing that my wife had entered labor that morning, drove straight to the hospital, took off my jacket, knelt down beside my wife's bed, and witnessed the birth of my daughter Phoebe.
About a week passed. Loren lay in bed nursing Phoebe, and I sat at my desk sifting through the suitcase. I came across a small flat box, which I noted contained copies of my mother and father's birth certificates. In this box, enclosed in their original envelopes, was the history of my adoption, starting with a letter from a friend to my mother, a letter of sympathy over a miscarriage. It was dated the year before my birth. Then a small envelope, a certificate from the County of Los Angeles granting my parents the license to run a foster home, for an infant named Baby Boy Church. Then a document allowing my parents to provide medical care for the same infant, signed by Jean Marion Church, then signed again by Jean Marion Brewster, both signatures in the same hand writing. From the date of birth shown, I was Baby Boy Church.
I ran in and showed Loren. I remember feeling incredibly exhilarated. I called my Aunt Dorothy, who had been married to my father's brother Eulis, and who had been around back in '54, and told her what I had found. She said, "You mean you didn't know?" I called Porter, my mother's oldest friend, with whom I had been in contact throughout my mother's illness, and he said, "You mean you didn't know?", in the same tone of incredulity as my aunt. I could empathize, I felt incredulous as well.

"You mean you didn't know?"

No, I didn't know.
Our culture views the phenomenon of Late Discovery with an almost primal dread. The emblematic LDA is Oedipus, who could not, as an otherwise honorable man, have committed the twin taboos of parricide and maternal incest had he not been ignorant of his true birth status. His tragedy hinges on the fact that he did not know. His ignorance, by the way, acquitted him neither from human nor divine punishment.
In the collections of archetypes we know as the Tarot, LDA's before their discovery may be best represented by the Fool, the card which number is 0, with the figure of the Fool blithely traipsing a mountain trail, with one foot lifted over the empty space as he apparently prepares to walk off a cliff.
Everything I knew was wrong; my name, my ethnicity, the entire tapestry of my family dynamic unraveled at my feet. I became the Fool, just after the moment captured by the Tarot. I was in free fall.
All of us, in this most individualistic of societies, no matter how high or low our class status, no matter how exhalted or mean our positioning in terms of money, education, gender, race, adoption, or any other marker of group differentiation, own one thing. Our narrative. Our story. The presumption is that we start at birth and march in a straight line through youth, adulthood, and then old age, with our traumas and joys providing wrinkles, switchbacks, and all the other individualistic imprinting providing the plots of our narratives.
This was the string that was cut for me.
I not only lost particular assumptions, such as my assumption of ethnicity, but also my basic assumptions concerning ethnicity; not just the particulars of family history, but my assumptions about family. Most of all I was forced to examine, in detail, every assumption I had about identity.

Identity as a Site of Contention

What changed, really?
I was still obviously a white male. I was still a husband and father. I had not lost my experiences, I had lived my life and my discovery changed none of my life's salient benchmarks or subtle gradations. What my discovery did was to change their flavor, or texture.
I remember feeling free, as if a load had been lifted from my shoulders. Many questions that had plagued me for years about my family were suddenly contextualized by my discovery. I had carried the feeling that I was "self-created" for a number of years, and my discovery validated that intuition, along with many others less clear or articulate. I had gone through a three year course of therapy beginning when I was thirty. At some point near the end of our relationship, my therapist told me that it appeared to him that something, some sort of traumatic event, had occurred early in my life, perhaps at a pre- verbal stage. In a sense he was right, but I feel the trauma was not a singular event, but was the Lie, which stretched in a continuum from my birth until my discovery. The Lie was the faulty foundation on which rested my family's dynamic structure. It should be noted that the Lie was not isolated, but was one of many lies intertwined between my mother, father and me.
After this period of elation, depression set in. The second year after my discovery I felt hopeless, groundless, and rootless. My self-created self felt stunted and withered. I felt I was dropping down an abyss. I was fortunate that I live in a community with lots of resources, I was able to find an adoptee support group fairly easily. I went to a meeting of an adoptee support group, and was able to connect many of my feelings with those described by my fellow adoptees. I learned the language of adoption. Issues. Abandonment. Wound. Some of this was helpful, some was less so, but I was at the beginning of a learning curve and didn't feel I could be overly analytical. I was adopting the notion of being adopted.
I started a very half hearted search, because I thought that was what I should do, as an adoptee. I went about it all wrong, and when the search fizzled, I was glad. I went back to introspection and incubation. Gradually, my depression lifted.

After a few years of solitary introspection, I decided to reach out to others about my experience. I wrote some articles, and posted to the adoption Usenet groups and joined an Internet mailing list or two. I read the writings and posts of others who shared my experiences. I found Bastard Nation, on Reg Day last year, and immediately joined. I decided, upon Shea Grimm's suggestion, to lead this workshop, and at that point drew up a questionnaire for these adoptees to fill out.
At this point I used the term LDA to describe us.
In reading the answers to my questionnaire, sent to me by about a dozen adoptees, several points stand out.
The lie which creates LDA's hold entire families, parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, hostage. Decisions to associate with certain family members are made predicated on their willingness to collude in the lie. Some families use geographic isolation to distance themselves from extended family members who may not be trusted to conceal the LDA's circumstances. Some LDA's are raised around extended families sworn to secrecy, where subtle, and sometimes less than subtle, manifestations of prejudice based on blood-ties are acted out beyond the capabilities of the LDA to fully fathom or analyze. In my own family my grandmothers were consistently cooler and more distant to me than to their grandchildren by blood relationship.
One LDA described the web of emotional blackmail that held her family. Family members, who knew of her adoption, told her after her discovery, "I told her she should have told you", evidently not realizing the gravity of their own complicity.
In the structure of the LDA's family, the lie serves to protect and cover the perceived shameful "abnormality" of adoption. LDA families appear "normal", and the entire family, the LDA included, is presumed to benefit from this normality, in comparison with other adoptive families. Some family members reap more of this alleged benefit than others, however.
The LDA's lie almost always originates from the adopting mother, and acts as a cover for her shame. Shame of infertility is the constant theme, most often the mother's, but not always so. One LDA's father was rendered sterile through a wartime bout with venereal disease, and the mother used the LDA lie not only to cover the adoption, but to cover the shameful circumstances leading to the infertility leading to the adoption. The mother who originates the LDA lie wields significant control, through control of family "secrets" and through the notion that the lie somehow protects her, which shifts the function of the family from the healthy process of protecting and rearing the adoptee child to protecting and maintaining the mother's secret.
Sometimes the mother's role as secret power broker is transferable to siblings, spouses of the LDA, or other family members. The mother will tell a sibling the secret, with the understanding that the sibling will not divulge it to the LDA. One LDA discovered at the age of sixty-four while examining family records. When he told his wife, she replied that she had known since the beginning of their marriage, and that she had not told him because she shared the LDA's mother's view that his birth status was "none of his business." Another LDA found out after her discovery that her mother had divulged the secret to her older sister when the sister was twelve. The sister carried the secret fearfully and with deeply confused loyalties, unable to reconcile the desire to please her mother and the profound sense of betrayal the lie created toward her sister.

The Social Construction of Concealment

The LDA's lie did not occur in the vacuum of atomized individual families without context or social reference. Although the LDA was unaware of their status as parts of the adoption triad, the parents were at least nominally aware of the popular social perceptions of adoption, as well as the legal specifics of their individual adopting, and their decision to manufacture the lie took place within the this social matrix.
"One assumption of modern adoption practice is that adoption is a "rebirth". This fiction assumes that the adopted child never had a birth family; adopted children leave behind all traces of their past and are fully "reborn" into a new family." (1)
The adopted parents of LDA's take this assumption to its logical extreme; if an adopted child is "reborn" completely into its new family, then the why acknowledge family of birth or the subsequent adoption at all.
"Once the adoption takes place, and is recognized legally..., the adopted person is a member of the adoptive family, with all the rights and obligations of any other young person in that family. She or he takes not only the family name, but also the family's very identity-- so that when someone talk about going to visit "the Williamses" or "the Garcias," they mean all the Williamses and Garcias, not just those who were born directly into that family." (2)
All the current popular literature I have read, whether it was intended for adopting families or adoptees describe the adoption process in these basic terms.
But, they also recommend informing adoptees of their birth status early and honestly.
"The child may or may not then ask which way he came into the family. Whether he does or not, he should be told that he is adopted ... Most of the "horror" stories one hears about adoption stem from the fact the child was not told at an early age by his parents of his adoption." (3)
The need for openness was not always so clear-cut, however. In 1960, Dr. Marshall D. Shechter, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, advised that adoptees not be informed of their adoption until they had passed through the "age of Oedipal conflicts... between the ages of three and six..." (4)
He explains that the "fears and fantasies of the adopted child are sometimes aggravated by the well-intentioned ways in which the adoptive parents try to soften the news that the child is adopted." Anxiously noting the high proportion of adoptees who seek psychiatric help, he recommends a "thorough investigation of the child and his environment..." before breaking the news.
I have yet to find any documents advocating completely and irrevocably burying the truth of an adoptee's birth status, but there are many that allude to or recommend bending the truth. In the article, "My Mother Was a Stranger" (5), Mrs. Sally Phillips is contacted by her birth-mother. "Sally had always assumed her real parents were dead." A rather extreme assumption on the face of it, one that begs the question, who told her they were dead, or at the very least allowed her to believe so? In another article, "The Truth Hurt Our Adopted Daughter" (6), a mother agonizes while her adopted daughter enters a downward spiral of bad grades, acting out, and intermittent depressions, all explained as stemming from the daughter desire to know what happened to her birth parents, and by extension, the story of her relinquishment. Daughter sees her adoptive parents fawning over other folks babies, and wonders how her birthparents could have "abandoned her". So, Mom takes daughter to a psychiatrist, who afterwards tells Mom to lie to daughter, at least until daughter "is old enough" to comprehend that her birth-parents were unmarried adulterers, whenever that will be.
So, one night while watching Highway Patrol, dad blurts out that daughter's parents were killed in an automobile accident. "The parents you were born from, died," just like on the TV show.
Her mother rationalizes, "Soon Amy will be a young woman. She will have the feelings to help her understand the things which can happen to lead to a baby's being placed for adoption. When she has achieved this understanding, when she no longer needs the concept of death to explain her adoption, we feel sure Amy will forgive our lie."
She then adds, "This is the story of our personal experience. Perhaps it will be of some help to other adoptive parents whose children may need the special kind of reassurance that Amy did. I know there are many respected adoption agencies who maintain that it is always best for a child to be told the truth. From our own experience, however, we have learned that children often draw mistaken conclusions about truths which they are too young to understand. We have talked to many other adoptive parents and have heard similar stories."
So we see that although lip service is paid to honesty, deception is not only embraced as a welcome alternative by some families, but is in this instance suggested by a mental health professional. And promulgated by the popular press. This is the cultural milieu in which most of the Late Discovery Adoptees with whom I have contact were raised, a confused and conflict ridden site of secrets and lies posing as beneficial family dynamics and therapeutic nostrums.

LDA's and Activism: Now that we know who we are, what are we going to do about it?

We are the poster children of the Closed Records system.
Out of the contradictory and convoluted sets of values presented to them, our families chose deception as a method of constructing their adoptive families because it offered the illusion of resolution. There was no need for us to worry about our adoption "issues", whether or not we would yearn to search for our birth parents, or any other typical adoptive parent abandonment issues, for the simple reason we did not know we were adopted.
Unlike other adoptees, we did not share a life-long sense of difference, or if we did we did not attribute this difference to our birth status or imagine that the state played a role in our alienation. We grew up into adults assuming we shared the same rights as other adult citizen, unaware of the state's collusion in our lie.
These misapprehensions disappear when the LDA discovers. After an intensely personal adjustment, the LDA may reach out to other adoptees on the Internet, in local support groups, or in therapy of one sort or another. Early on the LDA encounters the questions of search and reunion. This leads inevitably to the LDA's discovery of the Closed Records system. The LDA's I have communicated with, regardless of their present involvement in adoption reform are, not surprisingly, unanimously against Closed Records. I have yet to find an LDA that was pleased to have been lied to, and this anger can be, and often is, energized against the state and the adoption system as it exists.
Conversely, we are unassailable as critics of the system as it exists. Our lives are testimony to the pernicious cloud of secrecy obscuring adoption. I would posit that the first step in an LDA's commitment to activism against Closed Records would be to make public our private secret. We must follow the now familiar route authoring letters, articles, giving interviews, appearing on Oprah, Leeza, all the daytime weepers and confessionals; telling our stories, and shaming the system that shames us. Unlike Closed records manques, like Carol Sandusky, we have nothing to lose from the truth.
LDA's have a deep reservoir of outrage; regardless of what private acceptance we may have reached regarding our individual families, we detest being lied to elsewhere, or being told that it's for our own good, or the good of others at our expense. We have developed very good boundaries, we've had to. We need to press outwards with our newfound boundaries and get the government out of the realm of our identities, and back to the job of presumably accurate record keeping and paper pushing.
As an Open Records activist, I have found being an LDA very helpful in outreach to non- triadians. After all, I used to be a non-triadian myself, and, conversely, the possibility that the non-triadians may be LDA's hangs expectantly in the air between us. LDA's pluck a resonant chord in "civilians", a chord of ambiguity and anxiety about what society deems normative in families in general, and specific ambiguities and anxieties that they may feel about their own families' secrets. LDA's stand and deliver a message that says, "Yes, everything you know may be wrong." To possess this potent ability to upset and question is somewhat frightening, and a little of it goes a long way in personal relationships, but it is a good communications tool for an activist.
Lastly, and most importantly, we must insure that this ceases to happen to other adoptees. Perhaps a law similar to the Argentine law requiring parents to inform their children of their adopted status is needed, if somewhat clumsy to enforce. Ultimately, the best weapon is the truth, our truth. If we give witness to the gross injustice of concealing a person's birth status in as many public forums as possible, perhaps we will dissuade families from considering this option, or, in families that have concealed, we may persuade family members to come out and admit the secret. Concealment of birth status can only exist as long as family members collude, whether they are siblings, parents, members of the extended family, or family friends.

1. "When Love is Not Enough", Harvard Law Review, vol. 015, no. 7 (May 1992)
2. "So You Were Adopted", Fred Powledge, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982
3. "Let's Talk About Adoption", Susan and Elton Klibanoff, Little, Brown and Company, 1973
4. "Keep Adoption a Secret", Science News Letter, July 23, 1960 (reprinted from the Archives of General Psychiatry, 3:21, 1960)
5. Redbook, 116:48. March 1961
6. Parents Magazine, 38:44, January 1963

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BB Church's Funhouse

Hi all,

This is the blog of BB Church, so named Baby Boy Church at birth. The first two names are accurate and descriptive, I was a baby and I was a boy. I was not a church nor a Church; that name was given by my mother to the hospital as a dodge. No matter, four days later I became someone else, through the act of adoption, and my original name was lost to me for 36 years...

Until I found it, on a piece of paper. I have reclaimed my original name as part of a discourse of inquiry into the institution of adoption in the United States. This blog will become one facet of that discourse. Enjoy!

BB Church

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