The journey of my adopted self.

I’ve been trying to read Lifton’s Journey of the Adopted Self on and off for a while now and I’m thinking of just giving up on it. On the one hand, I really want to agree with Lifton that adoption causes problems with the adoptee’s development, and that these problems are not irreversible but do need to be addressed or at least acknowledged. On the other hand, I feel like this book is filled with a great deal of conjecture. Lifton really wants to theorize this thing to death, and I really don’t feel like it’s necessary to do that.

Part of the problem I have with this book is that it’s written for a general audience, or at least a “cross-triad” audience. This results in various adoptee disclaimers being printed on almost every page, and a great deal of text dedicated to reassuring adoptive parents in various ways, even when they’re being criticized. I’m so tired of stuff like that, even when I do it myself. Of course, considering how long ago the book was written I can understand how it turned out that way, but it’s still rather annoying.

But the biggest problem I have with it so far is that it seems like Lifton is trying to describe the adoptee experience. She abstracts individual experiences into theoretical claims about adoptee psychology that I find highly questionable, while the actual experiences that might be useful to me in understanding myself vanish over the synoptic horizon. The few vignettes she provides lack sufficient context, and only serve to back up her theoretical approach.

I don’t mean this as a review or critique–I haven’t even made it halfway through the book–but rather an explanation for why I find it so frustrating. When I’m reading this book, I frequently feel cut off from other adoptees when my own experiences don’t match her generalizations or the representative examples she provides. I feel like this robs me of authenticity in some way.

I have only a hazy memory of when I was first told I was adopted, and I honestly don’t remember my reaction to it. I don’t remember which details were volunteered and which ones I had to ask for. I don’t remember what, if anything, I asked about my natural mother, or what explanations were offered for my relinquishment or how I felt about those explanations. I’m sure I asked questions and I’m sure I was offered explanations, but really my clearest memory about my early conversations about adoption is my a-dad taking me for a drive in his old Oldsmobile Jetstar I (I think that’s what it was) and telling me it was the car they’d brought me home in. Even as a preschooler I could tell it was a pretty bitchin’ ride, so I thought it was pretty cool to have it as part of the story of my origin. Not exactly a primal wound.

I’m not saying being adopted wasn’t painful for me back then, or that I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering about it. I just don’t remember it that well. And it makes me worry, was I just not paying enough attention? Have I buried a bunch of memories? Am I doing “being adopted” wrong?

I think the individual stories told by adoptee bloggers are more interesting and useful to me, because I can find ways in which our experiences are related without feeling like I have to be squished into some theoretical mold of what the adoptee experience is like. Artificial Self, Forbidden Self, Prenatal Self, Replacement Self, Emerging Self, come on, why should I buy any of this crap? And even if I do, what does it get me?

I guess I should be more patient with this book and see where it goes, but it’s very, very frustrating.

Painful truths.

The first painful truth I learned about my adoption is that my mother is dead. I did not realize it would be the first in a sequence of painful truths.

Here is a painful truth: My mother gave me up to save a marriage that failed a few years later.

Here is a painful truth: My mother’s life was hard. There were only a few years where she didn’t live paycheck to paycheck, and those years were a long time ago.

Here is a painful truth: My mother had kids that she kept and raised as a single mom. We enjoyed a brief period of correspondence until a couple of weeks before the reunion when they suddenly disappeared, stopped responding, and ultimately never showed up to meet me. I guess I was a painful truth to them as well, a truth they decided to ignore. I hope that changes, but it’s not as big a disappointment as I thought it would be. They came after, and I’m not quite as interested in who or what came after. With one exception, but I’m not blogging about that right now. Later. Secrets and lies, it’s what we’re used to, isn’t it?

Here is a painful truth: The circumstances specific to my adoption put me about a thousand miles from my natural family. We are in the same country but from very different cultures. The life I would have had, had I grown up with them, would have been very different. I don’t know if I would have been very different, but if not I would have had a very hard time.

Here is a painful truth: I can’t honestly say my life was made better or worse because of adoption. If I could say that it was made better, then I could feel good about the choices everyone made. If I could say that it was made worse, then I could feel some justified outrage about my adoption. But while some things are clearly better, and other things are clearly worse, it’s really not possible to evaluate a set of “might have beens” in any meaningful way. I really don’t know what I might have made of my circumstances, or how happy I might have been having known nothing else. This is a painful truth because it positions me as a bewildered object acted upon by unseen and unaccountable forces.

I’m tired of being adopted. I’m tired of evaluating my current life in terms of how things might have turned out otherwise. I’m tired of evaluating my natural family in terms of how the life I might have had with them would compare to the life I have now. And I’m tired of having to just accept what I have since I can’t change it anyway, when doing so lets the people who made all the decisions completely off the hook.

Of course, I really don’t know what the point of keeping them on the hook would be. It’s done, and the key decision maker is keeping her silence on the matter.

Here is a painful truth: I went to my mother’s grave, not really knowing what I would feel but thinking I would feel something. I felt the heat of the setting sun on my face, and the hard, dry dirt under my feet, and the sparse blades of grass brushing my fingers. I felt exposed, I felt like I was on display, I felt like something was expected of me. It was hot, and uncomfortable, and empty.

Graves only say goodbye. Goodbye, again.

Lost and found.

I like my mother’s family, at least those of them I got to meet. They are really nice people. I felt connected to them instantly, too. I am not very much at ease with strangers, even members of my adoptive family who I do not see very often. But although there was some awkwardness here and there, for the most part I felt very much at ease with my mom’s family.

They totally accepted me, too. They told me how much I look like my mother, and it was really good to hear that in person. I was not an adoptee, my mother was not my birthmother. I was a nephew and a cousin. I was a member of the family. It felt good.

I thought this trip would be really emotional for me, that there would be mostly tears and grief, but there wasn’t nearly as much as I’d thought. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m still processing it or what. I think that in some ways it was harder on everyone else. I look so much like her, and they miss her, but I’m not her. That must be hard.

It’s hard for me to write about the specifics of the trip. It’s all so deeply personal I’m just not ready to share it, at least not yet.

I did not feel a closer connection to my mother as a result of this trip. I know a lot more about her, but knowing about someone and knowing someone are two very different things. I do, however, feel a closer connection to my roots. I feel like I have a story, now, of how I came to be, and that really matters quite a lot. I feel connected to the world in ways I never felt before.

My mother remains an enigma. I think she always will be an enigma to me. Imagine if you were completely nocturnal and had never seen the sun, but you knew it existed. Would looking at the sunlight reflected by the moon and the planets give you much of an idea of what it would be like to see the sun rise or set, or know what a bright sunny day feels like?

But at the same time, she is more of a person now, not just a name and a picture. She has a story, and we are parts of each other’s stories. And now I can find bits of her in me. My smile, my face, some of my gestures, and my walk come from her. Little bits and pieces of double helix string that tie us together, unseen but for others who point them out.

I have returned.

Well, I made it back.  I’ll write a full update when I have time, but overall things went very well.  Thank you, all of you who have left supportive comments.  I’m still processing everything, and I probably will be for quite a while, but it was definitely worth doing and I’m really glad I went.

See you next Wednesday.

I’m coming back on Tuesday but I realized I probably won’t get around to blogging until Wednesday, so as much as I wanted to write “See you next Tuesday,” it would be a lie. Plus I may even decide to take my computer with me at the last minute and actually find time to blog.

There is all kinds of drama looming with this trip to meet my mom’s family. I don’t want to go into it now, but there are things I’m worried about, disappointments looming, but of course I’m going ahead with it anyhow. There are good things, too.

My biggest fear is that it will be tedious, that I won’t connect, that it will not be meaningful in the ways I hope it will be. I think it’s a very irrational fear, but one I can’t help having. The fear of going through the motions. It’s like fearing a plane crash. It’s very unlikely, but terrifying anyhow because it’s something you really can’t do anything about.

Anyhow, this should be interesting.

Adoption and racism.

[This post has been revised. I published the previous version by accident when I meant to save it as a draft. Sorry about that.]

I have been reading Outsiders Within lately and it has gotten me thinking a lot about the inherent racism that exists in adoption, even same-race adoptions like my own. It’s pretty easy to spot the racism in international adoption practices, especially in the way some adoptive parents go out of their way to inform onlookers that their non-white children are adopted. I guess the stigma of interracial relationships outweighs the stigma of infertility, at least for some people, and that really bothers me because I think they are perpetuating that stigma by putting signs all over their children stating that they are adopted. I’ve made jokes about this before, but it struck me after reading a particularly clueless comment over on the Resist Racism blog that some people may need this sort of thing spelled out for them.

But even “same race” adoptions are built on racist assumptions. How can there even be such a thing as “same race” adoptions unless there is some kind of social consensus about what constitutes race and what features are necessary to pass for a particular race? I think the key here is passing or at least being close, and I think this can also be seen in international adoption, where adoptive parents balance the skin color of children against the affordability of adoption from a particular country. I’ve also made jokes about this, too, but it was apparent from some of the comments that using humor for cultural criticism can fly over the heads of some people.

What is a “white” baby, except a baby that everyone who sees it will agree is white? I wonder how many adopted “white” babies would not be considered white if they’d been raised by their natural families within their natural families’ cultures and given names from those cultures. I wonder how many adoptive parents who claim to love their children also unknowingly look down upon their children’s people. Of course, there are plenty who knowingly do it, too.

Do white prospective adoptive parents seeking same race adoptions ever try to be more specific than just “white”? Do any of them ever specify nations of origin, or broader groups such as Celtic or Germanic or Slavic? Is it more important to them that their children pass for white, or pass for theirs? Is it more important that they fit a desired social category, or that they share their parents’ heritage? Or is it just that they recognize (perhaps unconsciously) that transracial adoptions are problematic in a racist society?

I don’t think any serious, thorough discussion of adoption, even domestic same-race adoption, can occur without a discussion of race and racism. As if adoption wasn’t enough of a mess already.

Watching you without me.

I realized recently that I much prefer looking at pictures of my mom from when she was younger, from before I was born. There’s a set of pictures that I’m not sure about, that might be from afterward. I don’t know how I feel about those pictures. But the ones from later, the few that I have, I don’t like looking at them as much.

This is your life, without me. This is my life, without you.

It’s almost like, looking at her younger pictures, we could still be together somehow. I haven’t been born, we haven’t been torn apart. You haven’t gone on to have some other life and died before I could meet you. It’s as if the divergent paths become visible and taint the photograph in some way.

I’ve noticed, when I write these blog entries about my mom, how easily I alternate between second and third person. Talking to my mom and talking about her have become the same, or talking about her has become a substitute for talking to her. I’m not sure which and I don’t think it really matters.

Sometimes I think I don’t want to know anything about her life after I was relinquished. Of course that’s not really true, but sometimes I think it would be easier.

She moved on. I moved on. What else could we do?

Oh, how I miss adoption fog.

The day I meet my mother’s family is approaching rapidly and now I wish I didn’t have to deal with any of it. I wish I could shove it all back into my subconscious, forget that I’m adopted the way those “happy adoptees” are able to. I wish I could be normal again.

Except I was never normal to begin with. It was all a lie. A lie I would be reminded of periodically when my non-relatedness to my relatives would make itself salient in whatever I was doing.

It’s kind of like driving a car that periodically makes a funny sound, and you know something’s wrong but you don’t know what, and you don’t have any money to fix it anyways, so you just put it out of your mind and drive along hoping for the best until it makes that sound again. Rinse and repeat. Sooner or later, you have to find out what that funny sound is and deal with it, or something’s going to break. I don’t know if I would have eventually barfed up my transmission all over the freeway the way my old Nissan Stanza did back when I was in college and hoping the funny sound wasn’t serious, but I know that adoption fog wasn’t really healthy for me.

It still seems rather attractive, even comforting. I know better. Adoption fog is what kept me from finding my mother in the first place, and now it’s too late. I can’t wait any longer. But I wish I didn’t have to go through this.

I’m so afraid of all the things that could go wrong. I’m so afraid that everything will go just fine and I still won’t feel any sort of connection to anyone. I’m so afraid they won’t like me.

Adoption fog was comfortable. I knew who I was. Well, not really, but I could pretend. But now there’s so little for me out there. Identity is becoming such a strange idea to me, I’m really not sure what it is anymore. The things that separate me from others, plus the things that connect me with others, plus the people I came from, plus the people I’m connected to now, plus the things I like and things I want and so on and so forth. How can a person just be a list of things and facts and desires and other people?

Was I born a little blank slate, written on for less than three months by the woman who gave birth to me? And the subsequent 37 years and four months, authored by others and, ultimately, myself? It’s such a seductive idea. It would make my life so much easier.

But I just don’t buy it, even though it fits with my overall social constructionist view of the world. I wish I could. But I know better. So I’m going to meet them and I’m going to hope for the best. Just a few more days, and names, voices and photographs will become real people. Will I become a real person, too?

Will I be a real boy some day, Geppetto?

Is shooting yourself in the foot so bad if it improves your aim?

Well of course it is, because there are other ways to improve your aim. I think the only upside of shooting yourself in the foot is that you are much less likely to shoot yourself in the other one.

I was reading vietK’s recent post on things we adoptees do to undermine ourselves and feeling a bit chagrined about my own recent ride on the drama llama, and it struck me that perhaps some of these things are inevitable, and maybe the best we can do is just expect them and deal with them. I think it’s natural to worry about conflict and disorganization harming “the movement” or “the community” and to want to come down hard on them when they occur. Not that vietK is doing that, of course, he’s pointing out the things that bother him (including, but not limited to, conflict and disorganization), and they bother me too, especially when I see them in myself. Also, I am not really responding to his post so much as posting the thoughts that it inspired (mainly about conflict and my own recent drama), and the main reason I’m linking it here is that I think everyone should read it because he makes some very good points.

Adoptees are an incredibly diverse group. Pretty much the only thing we have in common is the adoption experience. But it is really amazing to me how much that is, just by itself. It gives us so much in common, so much we can relate to each other, that it can be really shocking when we uncover unexpectedly divergent aspects of our adoption experience, especially when there is an underlying assumption of commonality. It can make people feel shut out, even when they’re not.

The persistent use of epistemic modality (“I think…”, “in my experience…”, etc.) does get a little tiresome but I think that too many unqualified declaratives can create an assumption of shared commonality of experience, or at least project one. We all probably know that we are speaking of our own experiences but it’s easy to slip out of that and wonder if we’re being marginalized. And even speaking strictly of our own experiences can give the impression that those experiences are in some way being asserted as norms, exemplars, or prototypes of some sort. I’m not saying anyone should stop doing this, or even do it differently, but rather that it might just happen from time to time.

I think adoptees are very sensitive to discourse because we are constantly being victimized by it. The adoptee experience is something that has been subject to authorship by non-adoptees with agendas for so long now that it’s hard not to react defensively when we think the authenticity of our own experiences is being threatened, even by one of our own. It’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that that’s what’s going on, because with non-adoptees that’s almost always what’s going on.

So how do you choreograph a porcupine ballet?

What is reunion?

In a little more than a week, I will go to Texas to meet my mother’s family. This is what the adoption literature calls reunion, and adoptees will often refer to themselves as being in reunion after they have made contact with their natural families. But I do not feel like I am in reunion.

Reunion. Re-union. Union, again. To re-unite, you have to have been united before.

I don’t know these people. They seem nice. And I’ve actually met some of them before, when I was an infant, so I guess it is a bit of a reunion in that sense. But the key union upon which all the rest of this reuniting rests will itself have no reunion.

I will visit my mother’s grave, lay my hands on the ground above her ashes, and try to feel close to her. I hope it works. I hope something does.

A few feet of packed soil.

I wonder if international adoptees feel closer to their mothers when they touch the ocean.