When Do Adoptees Become Rescuers Too?

Recently, I have been editing a book written a couple of years ago by myself and a (non-adopted) co-author. The two main characters are a sister and brother non-blood-related pair of adoptees (four years apart in age). The primary arc of the narrative concerns how the older sister arrives finally at the point of weaning herself from her practically involuntary gesture of rescuing her little brother–a gesture that, over the course of the book, she has sacrificed virtually everything to (her life, her home, her work, to some extent her family, and her romantic life). The book is called “Gratitude”.

At root, my co-author and I were concerned to write a story that asked, “What is your breaking point as far as loyalty to family is concerned? How far can you go, before you will go no further?” The choice of the title “Gratitude” was his (if memory serves). For the older sister, her mission in life is to rescue her little brother. Her parents, who adopted the infant boy and took the four-year-old girl in the process, most decidedly felt themselves as “doing a good turn” when they adopted and went out of their way to adopt “within type”. The parents are bourgeoisie who’ve fallen on hard times, taking their family down into the dumps of poverty with them. And the book features a deus ex machina (in the form of a rich girl) who happily throws her money around as a solution to the problem of poverty, with mixed results.

I mention these details, because the older sister seems to have inherited her parents’ gesture of rescue. But unlike her parents, who suffer from bad luck (or who could be accused of placing too much faith in the Devil’s bargain of the American Dream), she goes a very long way toward destroying her life for the sake of her project of rescuing. In part, this invokes the savior complex, and comments pertinent to that are welcome (even in the book, the sister is accused of being “our own home-grown Jesus”), but I’d invite thoughts as well about being a “rescuer” not just a “savior”.

My question then is this. Ourselves having been rescued–whether that’s what we were told, whether that’s how we felt, or to whatever degree we eventually realize how much is false about any claim to such rescue–how has this expressed itself in, been something resisted as part of, or been something whose presence distorted or enriched, your life? Or in some other way?

One thought on “When Do Adoptees Become Rescuers Too?

  1. This one is hard to talk about. I often say to my students that “if regrets were dollar bills, I’d be a rich man.” I preface my reply this way because I currently regret a lot of things that are the equivalent of a fish regretting the water he swims/swam in.

    But another preface. I am currently working on the paper version of the conference presentation I did in October at St. John’s University, and I preface it with this quotation:

    It is misleading to conceptualize the needs and concerns of prospective parents as being somehow outside of or separate from the needs and concerns of the nation. Individuals who adopt from abroad do so within a particular domestic/international/political context. Their needs and desires are socially constructed and emerge out of the same domestic/international/political and economic context as the policies that formally address national needs and concerns. —Kirsten Lovelock, “Intercountry Adoption as a Migratory Practice”; International Migration Review

    To me this speaks to the growing proof it seems to me of the link between how “family” is and how politics are in any given place. I know that adoptive parents like to think of themselves as acting selflessly and without “puppet strings”, but I don’t think it is this easy. I also think that the proof here is to be found by removing the fish from the water, or otherwise making it aware of its context, history, surroundings. And thus my efforts in this regard.

    Growing up was an acculturation in mediated or distanced caregiving, charity, and alms. Mine was a Catholic-school indoctrination, so many will know what I mean when I speak of mission banks, offertory prayers, CROP walks, nursing-home visits, etc. I remember quite plainly once forgetting my five cents for milk, and a nun marching me upstairs to my great embarrassment and scolding me that we would take a nickel out of the mission bank, and because “I needed milk with lunch, an orphan child would go hungry.” This “direct connection” was too much for me to think about. I remember some nights vowing to not climb under my warm blankets in sympathy with these children. There but for the grace of God went I.

    My adoptive father was the absolute master of rounding up second-hand stuff and shipping it off to “poor countries abroad”, or finding “prizes” for the “poor kids” in the town where my parents had formerly retired. Pearl S. Buck was on the bookshelves, and “making contact” with such children was half the battle. Convincing them that America wished them well was the other half. And there was no convincing him that there was anything untoward in his beneficence. And I feel bad describing it this way, or taking away from him his sense of charitable giving. But more on this later. This reminds me of my second preface.

    When I lived in France, I went through the bizarre stage where I rejected the Arab identity projected onto me, and desperately claimed to be “American”. This was the flip side of pretending to be “white plus” in the States, as Girl4708 refers to it. I was removed from the North Africans I was associated with as well as the Lebanese expatriate community due to my “whiteness”. If only the French “saw” it that way.

    Back on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (“The People’s Republic of”, as my adoptive father would refer to it), and I was unable to volunteer in the local projects of Manhattan Valley for not being a) the right ethnicity but also b) of the same class. This distance always bothered me immensely, and to this day I find this to be the ultimate destructive force in American society: The inability to “step down” in terms of class in a society that doesn’t believe it is class-based in the first place.

    Here in Lebanon, I can see what the “speeded-up” end result of neo-liberal capitalism will be, and thus my inability to speak in trivialities or niceties when it comes to things like charity, beneficence, acting on behalf of others. Because frankly NGOs are the death knell for a “third-world” country, and “help” from abroad now means humanitarian imperialism, to use Jean Bricmont’s phrase, if not outright war. I am witness to the depravities of such charity, and I am unable to convince those “back on the farm” as it were to see it this way. So I stick to my local environment, and do what I can in a variety of ways that are reflective of just day-to-day living and not the former active-thought-process of “I will be charitable now”.

    I now spend all my time reducing what was formerly this great remove, this great chasm between those one might wish to help and oneself. I’m down in it. And this has meant rejection from my class of acculturation. But so be it. I never liked swimming in that water to begin with. And this brings us full circle.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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