Stuck On The Teat

From another post not on TRE, written by an adoptee, I was told:

We know that much of who we are today was created in the womb. We know that mother and child are a single entity, profoundly connected physiologically, emotionally and spiritually — even through early infancy.  A baby does not understand that he or she is an individual until at least 9 months after birth.

Through their research, authorities have determined that, when the mother/child entity is split, it causes an acute and lasting trauma in both mother and child.  The repercussions are ominous and tenacious.  Though they become buried deep inside, the repercussions follow both mother and child throughout the remainder of their lives.

Whatever the writer’s motivations, I’m not sure how helpful the tack here is. After all, if the problem of adoption is the trauma to the mother and child, then ameliorate that trauma somehow, and the basis for objecting to adoption disappears.

The point also has incoherences in it. If a baby does not understand he or she is an individual until 18 months into its existence, then to whom does the initial trauma of separation occur? Obviously, to no one, because one doesn’t exist yet. A river (to mix and anthropomorphize a metaphor) that is somehow blocked or diverted at its origin, so that the whole subsequent wind and meander of its flowing is changed by that initial blockage never stands up and objects that it’s not a river because of some “essential wound” at its source. By the writer’s argument, the child who is born blind should be pitied, but the blind child does not experience the loss claimed for her, unless someone forces it upon her somewhere (i.e., by pitying her). The fact that the adoption wound is inflicted on the child by human beings does not change this argument. As someone adopted when I was five days old, people have tried to tell me I have a prelingual wound, but I’m not convinced and I’ve yet to find a reason to convince myself it’s so. Rather, what I /do/ see as the problem (for me) is that people are trafficking in children.

Precisely what I don’t have in my psyche, if you want to argue this way, is that “fundamental bond” with some mother. Consequently, I have a very unsentimental view of the matter, which I find the original poster’s article to be reeking of. Trying to make a newborn into an object of pity because of how it was treated–before it was even an individual–obviously has immense problems in terms of women’s rights, but it also wallows in the deepest bathos of mother idolization, which is by far the singlemost powerful force keeping women “in their place” under the rigors of patriarchy.

This author is providing an argument against abortion, but also in favor of it. The phrase, “Through their research, authorities have determined that, when the mother/child entity is split,” with its eerie invocation of “authorities,” suggests that birth itself could only affect some kind of mother/child entity split. Or that every departure of the mother out of the newborn’s sense perception would be a traumatic split, one (ironically) repeated over and over and over on a daily basis in our culture. Or later on, when the child is finally an individual, or at adolescence, does the mother/child entity split then to traumatic effect? It’s clear, the disaster hardly seems avoidable so, maybe it would be better to spare the child such trauma entirely and abort it? Or, perversely, is this another argument in favor of adoption because we adoptees may have been fortunate to have had this terrible separation only once and early, before we were even individuals?

Doubtless the author is not trying to say any of this, but it is a consequence of a misdirected emphasis. I can hardly read the above and not be struck by how stuck on the teat it is, that the whole thing is wrapped up in a very old-fashioned insistence on the ultimate amazingness of the mother which takes no account whatsoever of the vast effort women are told they must do to raise children and instead focuses on the involuntary biological labor of being the source of a life. As a feminist, I find that revolting. If I owe anyone any gratitude, it is not for making me; it is for the work they did caring for me, eveni f that was disastrously inadequate.

Whatever good one can get by constructing a primary wound of adoption psychologically and then working through it, that is the business of individuals, and may all beings find peace. But as a matter of social life, to focus on the individuals of the triad only is misdirected, except perhaps to keep clearly in focus the primary beneficiary, the trafficker, who maintains the institution of adoption as a matter of social policy, which is where the real source of the primary wound resides.

I intend all of this as implicating to the United States, though I realize there are other places these points can stick to as well. I am saying, yes, that the fundamental fact of childhood itself is already slavery, and how can one have a circumstance of slavery that does not include both the newly arrived slaves and the ones already established (in a given plantation/family). And like in any hierarchy, there are favored slaves and otherwise. And to say all of this denies nothing in the experience of adoption, but rather widens the context where the enslaved class of children are treated in the first place.

So we could say there are natural slaves and trafficked slaves, or trafficked slaves and nontrafficked slaves. Part of what I’m objecting to in the author’s article, then, is the unhelpful, if not disingenuous, valorization of natural slavery to critique trafficked slavery. The alternative that seems to lie behind her objection to adoption is not one I want to advocate for. A more desirable circumstance would be one where no one would ever say “my child”. Perhaps “our child” would be better–a circumstance where the growth and health of the child is dependent upon the growth and health of the whole environment in which she grows up. A world where he is decidedly not property, whether bought outright of home-made.

7 thoughts on “Stuck On The Teat

  1. There are so many ways of coming at this, but first and foremost I agree with you and your closing statement of holistically deciding that “we” should trump the economically and politically enforced nuclear family and individual.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I am familiar with a lot of this type of research—The Primal Wound comes readily to mind—and whereas I tend myself to try to not wallow in my own “woundedness”, focusing instead on bigger-picture concerns, I do believe that this type of examination of self is important for adoptees to consider—up to a certain point.

    I say this because there are in fact stories I hear that scientifically make sense to me, for example, the fact that my “favorite foods” are directly related perhaps to what my mother ate during her pregnancy, above and beyond any food that was placed in front of me by a different mother. I still refer to much of what she cooks as “comfort food”, but it doesn’t deny the fact that I was (“oddly”, as my adoptive parents put it) into the olives and lemons from a very early age.

    We should also bring up the fact that there is a divide within the adoptee community, between those who might claim the status of being “wounded”, and those who reject this disempowerment, for want of a better term. I am split here. Given what I posted about RAD, I do believe that a society manifests pathologies that it merits on some level. At the same time, I sense that in the absence of this “we”, this community, such individual pathologies are going to manifest themselves all the more. Whether we make them reality by focusing on them is another point entirely.

    We should also point out the establishment of scientific “research” the goal of which is to in fact prove the “blank slate” theory that paves the way for adoption among other traffickings. This historically recalls for me the Anglo-Saxon projection of horror onto, say, Scandinavian communal living, or Communists sharing everything. As much as this seems to come down to culture and ideology, I am often struck by childhood photographs of adopted children which it seems to me reflect a state of shock or wonder or fear that I don’t think is normal.

    Whether we sense or not this “break” with our mother to me is not so much the point as is the power differential you are alluding to that allows for this break to occur. That these avenues of research and discussion are seemingly in and of themselves benign, but they often tie into systemic needs for, as you are describing, keeping women and children in their place.

    Somewhere beyond the romanticism of “mother”, the search for a “cause”, and the systemic imposition of a status quo is something that would start to make sense of all of this. And just coming to mind is historically the invention of “childhood” as a separate period of growth and development. Your point about slaves is well taken; children have always been workers. That a certain class was able to find the leisure time to change this for themselves is perhaps the key to an answer: Who exactly are we studying, and why?

    • When you write, “Given what I posted about RAD, I do believe that a society manifests pathologies that it merits on some level,” I can only agree with you, and what is important about this is that the etiology of the behavior is not relevant at all, but rather how we might address the behavior: all the way from electroconvulsive shock therapy or drug regimens, to the talking cure, to removing the offending parents from the child’s environment and allowing him or her to find somewhere to feel safe.

      Obviously enough at present, neither facile genetic explanation nor tortured therapeutic methods have any kind of success rate one would want to brag about. Jung is unambiguous on the point: often knowing WHY does absolutely nothing for relieving a person of their neurotic tendencies, so whatever a “cure” consists of (when it is not just a system of management, like ECT or Ritalin) will in all likelihood not be correlated to the methodology of cure. Even amongst alcoholics, drug addicts, and people suffering from various forms of neurosis, the most effective cure known is spontaneous recovery–that is, people get over it on their own. So the etiological conceit, whether arising from nature or nurture, is first and foremost the justification offered for continuing to advise people to pay experts a lot of money to do little for them. Where psychopharmaceuticals are concerned, these do not offer cures, but only techniques of management, some of which individuals are very grateful for, and i don’t begrudge them their peace of mind. But management, especially when such a blunt instrument as psychotropics are the tool used, certainly isn’t deft management—it’s not even clear what’s being managed.

      I know you know this, but I see an important difference between confronting a circumstances where an individual is acting out in some way (even including acting with wholly rational and defensible violence in the face of parental mismatch) and something like a primal wound or you liking lemons (which I’ll get to in a moment). Again, the task in this case is to find the necessity that meets that need, and if we arrive at that point with a given specific individual by the “fiction” of a primal woundedness (a crime against Nature by Nurture) or the “fiction” of a some lack in the environment (a sin against Nurture by Nature), the truth of the fiction isn’t what matters in the calculus of trying to get the suffering individual some relief, but only the ends (of delivering that relief).

    • I want to connect both the idea you point to when you write, “We should also point out the establishment of scientific “research” the goal of which is to in fact prove the “blank slate” theory that paves the way for adoption among other traffickings” and also the idea at work in the paragraph where you wrote, “I say this because there are in fact stories I hear that scientifically make sense to me”.

      These are two sides of the same coin, both equally reductionist, both equally deluded that human freedom of thought is inextricably constrained by Nature (or, what is the same thing, that Nature is the king to whom Nurture necessarily bows). I’ve said previously, where we place priority, then the relationship to everything else follows. There is a temptation to put genetics first, but Sartre argues there is existence before essence, so that means Nurture before Nature, if we want to stick with those crude terms. However, Sartre’s argument simply reverses the priority and puts Nurture first, with Nature following dutifully behind.

      Example. To say that smoking causes lung cancer is false. It contributes to lung cancer only in those people it contributes to lung cancer in. And to say that it increases my risk for lung cancer is to say nothing of use at all. What precisely is an “increased risk”? So if there is some story that my biological inheritance gives me an increased risk of diabetes, that means nothing if I never get diabetes, and if I do get it, it becomes obvious that my chances of getting it were 100%. Only in the cases of those comparatively very few genetically well-characterized conditions is there any legitimate predictive value, and actually it’s not a prediction, because when something is inevitable, one doesn’t predict it; one already knows it in advance. In which case, only if it is avoidable does it make any difference for me to know.

      Therefore: all the appearances of scientific validity in the world are not going to convince me that I like shepherd’s pie because my birth mother or father was Welsh. This is, again, where we get immediately into the utility of the fiction.

      As I’ve mentioned before, from a very early age, I wanted to defect to Russia. I have wanted simply to stand on its dirt, so i could weep finally for my sense of belonging somewhere. I’ve felt patriotism for Russia. So you can only imagine what it would mean to me to learn my biological contributors were Russian in some way, and not the Welsh, German, and Irish I was told. But a more likely reason for my love of things Russian is because my father hated Russia, and I hated my father. It’s certainly true that Russian music and literature have spoken to me like no other, but that can be because the Russian artists are more inclined to being melancholic temperaments like me, not because I’m Russian “really”. In fact, I don’t like borshch, which is grounds for excommunication in Russia, where if you call it “soup” you get frowned at. Etc. I don’t like vodka. What would I make of the fact that my biological mother HATED Mussorgsky? Unthinkable! (Or, just to be perverse, what if my Welsh mother loved Mussorgsky? And if I picked up a love of Mussorgsky from her, is that genetic or simply because I heard Mussorgsky playing–the Hut on Fowl’s Legs and the Gnome for sure–while I was in the womb?)

      As I noted in my previous reply about RAD, whether we resort to some fiction about Nature or some fiction about Nurture, the truth of these fictions is NOT in play, but only their utility as an end to finding some peace of mind for the person suffering. For the issues in this present reply, where so-called scientific quackery is at root to prove that a primal wound is true (that the fiction of Nature is true) or that some fiction about Nurture is true (that we are a blank slate), then we are unambiguously in the territory of destructive social policy, eugenics, needless medicalization, therapeutic abuse, misguided efforts toward social justice, and setting ourselves up to create the divisions in our ranks you note–drawing lines in the sand. Whether there someone makes an argument that there’s a gene for liking lemons or that we’re tabula rasa, it ends badly either way. We’re not served by either conclusion.

      Let us extract individually all of the good we can out of whatever fiction works for us (Vaihinger’s “as if”) whether in terms of nature or nurture, but socially what matters is not genetics (nature or nurture), but the right to reparations for the tort of having been a trafficked slave. I don’t want the redress of this wrong, which was against my existential person (not my nature or my nurture), to be the provision of an enslavement in childhood that I was at peace about (i.e., a “normal” childhood), but rather a childhood without slavery for myself and all people who are denied recognition because they are deemed not adults.

      • I should perhaps qualify what I’m saying a bit better, because we are starting to get somewhere interesting (I think) in our chewing away at Nature vs. Nurture, and I’d like this discussion to keep going.

        Within the realm of nature and nurture as possible causes for this, that, or the other thing, I think we are fairly saying that certain givens within societal power structures, weighing on “research” in these fields, will produce results that corroborate the dominant mode if you will.

        On the flip side of this are those of us who are attempting to point out the “man behind the curtain”, and we are, for swimming in the same water, nonetheless prone to romanticizing, projecting, honeymooning with, or otherwise being comfortable with “science” as it corroborates our “resistant” viewpoint.

        I want to elaborate further on the Nature arguments because they seem to vary, and fulfill various functions, and some of them I might ascribe to, and some I might dismiss entirely, but I also want to add that I attempt to be skeptical first, having gone through my “honeymoon” phase here in Lebanon (perhaps a topic for a separate item).

        So when I was in university, and my friends were doing their PhDs in Linguistics at Berkeley with the Lakoffs, there was much scoffing at Chomsky at MIT, and his ideas that there is a “universal grammar” in terms of language. Ironic to me is that I was heavy into AI and the computer and programming at the time, and so Chomsky’s views on language should have been a Godsend for someone like me, but instead because of separate input, and a growing realization that the “intelligence” of the machine was actually our reduction of ourselves to the machine’s level, I rejected wholesale the idea that grammar rules are somehow embedded in our brains.

        This doesn’t prevent me from thinking about scientific studies that “prove” an infant’s “preference” for the native tongue of its mother. This seems like a perfectly logical conclusion to make given what might be audible within the womb. I remember thinking at one point that Arabic was perhaps easy for me to pick up because when my adoptive family lived in Iran, we had a bedouin Arab as a house servant, and I’m pretty sure I heard his voice more than my adoptive father’s for the first year and a half of my life. This is equally contradicted by my friends from the same orphanage, adopted at a later age, who have completely obliterated Arabic from their brains and can’t learn it for the life of them.

        All this to say that the danger seems to be more the looking for the absolute “proof”, especially in the framework you are stating, and pointing back to previous “proofs” such as eugenics, phrenology, anti-miscegenation, etc. which still exist within the culture to certain degrees.

        Did I raid the cocktail tray for olives and lemon wedges when I was a kid out of some yearning for the womb? Hardly. Is my affinity for things “olive-y” and sour from my mother? Likely. Does this prove anything one way or the other about adoption as an institution? No. It certainly doesn’t have an impact on the way I see adoption as another form of economically and politically incentivized displacements. I could file it under “cultural destruction”, however, if I think about it.

        All the same, I will not argue that adoption should not take place because “the child’s palate will be irreversibly traumatized”. And I appreciate your warning here, as I’m reading it, to not allow for a kind of wallowing in “sanctified trauma”. I absolutely agree that this can become, in and of itself, a self-fulfilling black hole of wasted energy. And I would only add, given my context now, that we have the luxury and privilege to muse along these lines, whereas the majority of those suffering in the world do not. This isn’t a castigation, but I marvel daily at the resilience I see in people whose circumstances are in a whole other realm of desperate.

        Finally, like many, and as you are expressing concerning all things Russian, I’ve gone through my phases. French was certainly one of them, and as much as a certain segment of the local population here in Lebanon (obnoxiously) sees itself as Phoenician and leans toward France as a colonial presence much longed for, I would be silly to say that this had some bearing “genetically” on my leaning toward the French language and culture. In terms of reading, I’ve gone through a huge Asian literature phase, which spilled over into Buddhism and Tao and other aspects of pop culture from those countries. As a whole, perhaps I was throwing darts at a turning globe, hoping something would stick, and only caring that I wasn’t investing my time in “what I knew”.

        This seems now that I think about it to be the “landing” in reality of my previous-to-that forays into reading about the paranormal, and UFOs, the supernatural, horror/sci-fi/fantasy, etc. What we are maybe talking about is pure escapism, some grounded, some not so. But beyond all of this, I want to know why, against everything having to do with my self-preservation in Lebanon, I feel a resonance in certain places and among certain people. Not in a “honeymoon” kind of way, but in a gut instinct kind of way. I don’t know how to explain it. And I don’t mind hearing that I am full of shit, by the way.

        So I ask: If the purpose is not “proof”, but instead “empathy” and “common cause”, does that change the parameters at all? Meaning, if I see a link between myself and a man named Majid in Iran, or between myself and adoptees who’ve gone through similar circumstances, at what point does our “bonding” become actually detrimental to what we might hope to accomplish via that bonding?

      • We’re getting into the peril of the narrow reply column …

        Where you contrast:

        “Within the realm of nature and nurture as possible causes for this, that, or the other thing, I think we are fairly saying that certain givens within societal power structures, weighing on “research” in these fields, will produce results that corroborate the dominant mode if you will.

        On the flip side of this are those of us who are attempting to point out the “man behind the curtain”, and we are, for swimming in the same water, nonetheless prone to romanticizing, projecting, honeymooning with, or otherwise being comfortable with “science” as it corroborates our “resistant” viewpoint.”

        You are pointing out different logical domains, where the “value” or the “purpose” of the research vis-a-vis research itself differs from the use that people put it to for personal or polemic reasons–the latter of course becoming a feedback loop at times to what research gets done. Two well-known, historically problematic versions of this are social Darwinism (from Darwin’s theory of evolution) and cultural relativism (from Einstein’s formulation of Poincare’s theory of relativity). Elsewhere in your remarks, you correctly underline my worry that the treating of these fictions “as if true” will turn into “are true”–and that’s where I want to place the resistance point. Although, I can hardly ignore that a very great deal of religious faith cannot operate in a domain where treating something “as if true” is satisfying. The faithful must insist that it “is true”. I’d tend to ascribe this to a temperamental factor.

        Language perhaps is a very loaded, rich, earthy loam for this issue because it is so fundamentally implicated in nature or nurture or neither. Children raised in bilingual houses pick up both languages simultaneously. Chomsky’s universal grammar is well-nigh universally discredited, and for good reason; what one can say (as Jung, and others, pointed out before any of the post-War linguists) is an in-born inclination to acquire language (after 24 months out of the womb or so). Wherever a person gets born, they’ll pick up the language (this is not the tabula rasa, but the inclination to pick up language at work), whatever their “race” so that I’d be skeptical of any determination that an a priori native has a greater propensity for her native tongue. Your example supports this, I think, insofar as you were exposed (during the supposedly critical developmental period) to Arabic, perhaps; there’s the rational explanation for your facility in Arabic and why the others you mention in the orphanage had less facility, perhaps. Similarly, if it even makes scientific sense (and I’m not sure it does) to say that a fetus is affected by its mother’s voice while it is still in the womb, then there must similarly be effects from any voice potentially within vibrational range, and that’s hopelessly unmeasurable scientifically I’m sure. The unreproducible factors of this and the merely statistically significant correlations researchers point to like make this stuff excellent pseudoscience for the purposes of getting grant money, but I doubt they’re telling us anything helpful.

        But this also points out how “language” and “culture” (especially in a melting pot like the United States) are not co-terminal necessarily. Apparently, as much as 70% of our speech may be formulaic in character–formulaic speech being a communicative resort to better meet our needs in the world. For those who don’t pick up the dominant formulaicity, this will mean falling behind; I think this is one root of the “race” gap in the US. This is an effect of nurture that is blamed on nature because most research cannot even see this formulaicity in the first place. Etc.

        I don’t know if this is where this comment should stop, but I’m feeling weird about the half inch wide, twelve mile long formatting.

  2. You write a very provocative post, Snow Leopard! There is much to unpack and to respond to. I will make a simple observation of the problem in the very first sentence you quote, “We know that much of who we are today was created in the womb.” This simple sentence is actually very complicated because isn’t it clear that most of who I am today was not created in the womb, but outside it! My limbs, digestion, air breathing, heart and brain all were created in the outer world – which serves as much of a womb as the maternal womb. Yes, the discussion is pointing towards the maternal womb and the role of that particular part of nature in making us who we are.

    The use of the word “authorities” to refer to researchers, what used to be called scientists, is a little startling. Science and hypothesis are meant to take social forms of knowledge away from authoritarianism. The opportunity is that knowledge may become genuinely personal, appropriated with consent, through a process of rational judgment. The older context of that was exorcising religious authorities from the free pursuit of knowledge by scientists, i.e., the ordinary (educated) person.

    If I understand you are concerned that the adoptee is involved in a system of thought that results in a valorization of slavery. The system distorts our view of the larger reality which exists beyond the triad. The larger reality is the whole environment (cosmos?). And it is the environment that is the more real “parent.” Or has this messed it all up?

    • Hi Mark: No, I don’t think you messed it all up; I think you widened the context even more than I did. I do not mean to downplay or departicularize the specific wrong involved in adoption AND I want to contextualize that wrong as part of the larger problem of the general status of slave that children (in many places in the world) occupy. This context of slavery is itself not universally human, so there is yet the wider context still of “the human” (i.e., the world of nonslave children as opposed to slave children). And beyond that context, is the context of the world (i.e., the context that contains the human and the nonhuman). Beyond that would be the somewhat impractical context of the nonworld and the world (although, with my fondness for the Bhagavad-Gita, I won’t pretend we can do nothing with this context).

      With this particular writer, the way that she speaks of the mother/child entity like a rather sacred thing, it reminds me that the alternative to being a trafficked slave (as a child) is to be a “natural” slave, which is no alternative at all, as far as my senses of social justice is concerned.

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

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