Monday, February 19, 2007

"Adoption: Uncharted Waters", A Review

Adoption: Uncharted Waters
David Kirschner, Ph.D
Juneau Press

“Adoption: Uncharted Waters,” by David Kirschner, is a brisk read, especially if you’re a fan of the true crime genre (who doesn’t like to read case studies of serial killers and parricides?). However, there is a more serious intent behind “Adoption: Uncharted Waters” than titillating the bored and morbidly curious, and that is to assert Kirschner’s claims for the diagnosis and proposed treatment of the Adopted Child Syndrome, or ACS. Kirschner pioneered the theory of ACS as a definable syndrome through over forty years of clinical practice with adopted children and adolescents. In 1986, struck by the parallels between the autobiographical narratives of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, and those of some of his patients, Dr. K. became focused on adoptee killers as extreme exemplars of ACS. Kirschner has been able to interview several high-profile adoptee killers, including Joel Rifkin and Jeremy Strohmeyer, as well as assisting in their legal defense. His success at convincing the justice system of the validity of ACS as a mitigating condition in the acts of these killers has been spotty, and has attracted as much negative attention to ACS as positive.

Thus, in addition to the case studies and theoretical explication, “Adoption: Uncharted Waters” contains a great deal of Kirschner defending this theory against his critics. These critics are a varied crew, representing the juridical (Allen Dershowitz), the academy (sociologist Katarina Wegar), and the political. Kirschner complains that he catches it from both the political right and left. Welcome to Adoption World, Dr. K! But more on this in a bit.

What is missing in “Adoption: Uncharted Waters” are analyses and critiques of the theory of the Adopted Child Syndrome from the quarter most capable of providing it - a review of his peers. I’m neither a clinical nor a research psychologist, and whatever carps I have with ACS are, for the most part, political and cultural critiques that have no bearing on the validity of Kirschner’s research or conclusions. So I’m not going to analyze ACS underlying psychological theories, diagnoses, or Kirschner’s proposed treatment. What I will note is that ACS provides a compelling and coherent narrative of the development an adoptive Self, albeit a narrative of pathology, and this where Kirschner and ACS get into the most trouble.

Kirschner goes to great lengths to explain how ACS occurs in an extremely small number of adoptees that experience varying combinations of genetic predispositions and traumas in development, including the Primal Wound described by Nancy Verrier. Others are less circumspect about how adoptees develop ACS and how many adoptess have ACS. Even B.J. Lifton, who Kirschner cites in his book as a friend and colleague, and who worked on her own theories of ACS (concurrently, at the least, with Kirschner, if not before), has on occasion opined that all adoptees, potentially, have ACS. AMFOR, Lori Corangelo’s anti-adoption organization, takes Kirschner to task on its website for what it considers waffling on this point. The AMFOR web article attempts to raise the suspicion that Kirschner may have yielded to pressure from some mysterious pro-adoption force in modulating his previous opinion. And this is from people who ostensibly support the notion of ACS.

As much as Kirschner would like to “contain” ACS within the limits prescribed by his research, it has grown legs of its own and ambled into the larger laboratory of adoption discourse. It is here that ACS became “ACS” (the narrative as opposed to the psychological theory), a creation myth of adopted identity. Much the same thing happened with the Primal Wound theory, which through its entry into adoption discourse became transformed from psychological observation/opinion into “the Primal Wound”, a universalizing narrative of adoptee angst, confusion and existential unease. And it is as the mythic narrative that “ACS” was analyzed and critiqued by Bastard Nation, among others.

I recall that when I was invited to join Bastard Nation’s Executive Committee back in 1997, Shea Grimm asked me if I “believed in the Primal Wound.” I could tell by the context of the question that this could have been a determining factor in whether I would be accepted or not as a BN leader. My answer must have been satisfactory, since I went on to serve on the ExecCom, but I think the frame of the question is more telling. In the discourse of adoption, “the Primal Wound” and “ACS” are articles of faith, not theories. One either believes in their narrative arcs or one does not. Adoptees can choose to “adopt” them as narrative overlays that may contextualize remembered (and unremembered) events and the emotional responses to those events. Adoptees can self-diagnose with “ACS”, “the Primal Wound” or both, and project sets of meaning on their behaviors and responses. One can diagnose other adoptees with “ACS” or “the Primal Wound” and thereby deploy sets of meaning onto (or against) them. Kirschner complains that BN and others have distorted and misrepresented ACS in their critiques, but the misrepresentation was created when ACS becomes “ACS”. (Of course this transformation of theory into narrative isn’t exclusive to adoption, imagine how Freud must have felt when his theories morphed into cultural artifacts.)

While “ACS”, the narrative, has garnered acceptance from some due to its ease of use (all you have to do is believe in the narrative to make it so), it’s also accumulated a wide array of critics. Kirschner gives the impression that he’s surrounded by these critics and uses the language of conventional political positioning to describe them; Bastard Nation on the Left, the National Council for Adoption on the Right. This is problematical on many levels. Adoption politics are not divisible by conventional frames of Left and Right. Adoption as an American institution (meaning traditional, sealed records adoption) has been embraced by both parties, and, at times, by all wings of both parties. Resistance and reaction to reforming adoption practices has been bipartisan. One of the most resistant groups opposing opening adoption records to adult adoptees has been state groups of the ACLU, which can hardly be described as right-wing. In California, I worked with a moderate Republican on an open records bill and found our major opposition was a conservative Republican and a group of extremely liberal Los Angeles Democrats. They managed to put aside their quotidian differences over abortion, gay rights, the role of big and small government and every other issue in order to beat up on adoptees.

So, while “Adoption: Uncharted Waters” is a good place to start if you’re interested in adoptee pathologies, it leaves much of the story untold. David Kirschner is probably not the best person to follow the transformation of his theory into a free-floating narrative in the discourse of adoption, he’s too close and too invested in the theory of the Adopted Child Syndrome to be able to analyze the “Adopted Child Syndrome”, the narrative. Which is too bad. One of the strongest impressions I got from the book is how compassionate and caring Kirschner is towards adoptees. If he lived closer to me, I might be tempted to use him as my therapist. But not because I’m a true believer.

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