The Third Trauma of Adoption

In a well-intended, adoptee-written post elsewhere, the author describes some of the characteristic effects on the child who is torn from her or his site of initial gestation. Directing a question to nonadoptees, with an implicit comparison to adoptees, the writer asks:

“Did you ever smile and act happy to hide your grief? ¶ Of course you did.  But even when you smiled, those close to you knew it didn’t mean you were happy.  Those close to you accepted and expected your pain and sadness.  They did not expect you to be happy about your loss.  They gave you something most adoptees do not get: acknowledgement of, empathy for, and permission to express your grief.”

Whatever the author exactly intends here–and the argument seems primarily directed to countering the ubiquitous and/or disingenuous statement, “I see adoptees all the time, and they don’t seem anywhere near as miserable or traumatized as you are making them out to be”–nevertheless, she is recommitting what she herself correctly identifies as the second trauma of adoption, i.e., the dismissal of the significance of adopted child’s experience. (“Most experts in the fields of adoption psychology and trauma consider this dismissal to be the adoptee’s second trauma.”)

Though not operating from a standpoint of malice, nevertheless her generalization that adoptees “smile through pain” dismisses the experience of those adoptees who did not stumble upon or cleverly figure out that method of coping with the fact of their initial trauma. For one, I immediately think of those who, despite their best or worst efforts, could find no way to cope at all and committed suicide–the ones who are not even here to speak up for themselves, whether they smiled through the pain or not. But after them, I can only become curious at all of the many other ways besides “smiling through pain” that we, as adoptees, figured out to cope, survive, and thrive. How did you?

Some of us, indeed, learned to smile through the pain; others became invisible; others committed suicide; others did still other things besides. In the author’s case, one gesture that seems apparent in her post is to have become the convinced champion of the fundamentally wounded:

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.

Whether this accurately describes anything or not, to shoehorn us all into a single category is retraumatizing; it dismisses the experiences of adoptees who did not or do not experience adoption as the author describes it and substitutes a “You are this way” in place of his or her own “I am this way”.

Is the third trauma of adoption, then, the dismissal of dismissals in favor of one generalized vision of (shared) trauma amongst all adoptees?


6 thoughts on “The Third Trauma of Adoption

  1. I assume that the author of the article cited in this post wasn’t trying to be nasty or something, and it made me nonetheless feel very nonrecognized and so encouraged me to reprise my own strategy of becoming invisible. That’s why I wrote this post instead, to counter the “implicit demand” to be my “adoption self” and to revert to type: i.e., invisible. If I’d been someone who smiled through pain, maybe I’d’ve cheerfully responded with a grin.

    It is not necessary to link to her post (I think) because the specific content of that post is not what the ultimate issue emerges from or devolves to). Rather, it is the casual and assumed “this is how you must be” (or “this is how you are”) tone of it, perhaps borrowed (I’m guessing) from the author’s own adopting parents’ well-,meaning statements about their daughter, “Honey, you are OUR daughter, no matter where you came from” Etc.

  2. How did I cope? Retreated to books; finding refuge and independence in the library. Not playing sports made me suspect, as did good grades; this resulted in “clowning it up” despite being rather shy, gawky, and geeky. You often hear this from comedians who describe it as a self-protective measure. In a Lord of the Flies environment, perhaps it is possible to stay the inevitable by making Mr. Alpha laugh a little. Cue the “court jester”.

    I don’t think coping is the right word. Search for escape is probably better, whether chemically, in terms of reading and other forms of entertainment, or physically leaving the country (France in the mid-1980s; Lebanon now). But none of the above is inherently tied to the adopted child, though we might recognize similar traits, and God knows that most of those who shared this escapism with me were not themselves adopted.

    But even if I’m bothered (I won’t say traumatized) by someone telling me what I went through, or why I am the way I am, I don’t see it as dangerous—yet. Meaning it seems that adoption is going through a re-evaluation that is going to have pendulums swinging rather widely if not erratically, and certainly not in unison. There’s a lot of stuff to work through, culturally, politically, economically, as well as personally. To hope we can all be on the same page at the same time is wishful thinking.

    I’m perhaps borrowing here too much from my own faith, in which I am more likely to forgive others for being at a different stage of their own path, unless—unless—I feel they should know better or do know better, or if they are not giving me the same benefit of the doubt. Still and all, I don’t sweat this kind of thing, because it seems that ultimately changing the systemic nature of how these feelings manifest themselves personally will go much farther than attending to them as symptoms in and of themselves.

  3. I equate smiling to presenting a false face – which I did successfully many years. When you’re numb, it happens.

  4. Pingback: Third Trauma of Adoption « The Life Of Von

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