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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