LATE DISCOVERY ADOPTEES:
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 My mother was a packrat, and kept everything; out of date telephone directories and shoe boxes with old shoes she had worn out filled her house to the gunnels.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
Labels: adoptee identity, adoptee rights, Adoption, Late Discovery Adoptee, narrative