“Through me you pass into the city of woe.” —Dante
As adoptees who live on the razor’s edge between places, we are often asked to broker for or engage on behalf of those who are looking for roots as well, either as adoptees, or more often for me I must say, adoptive parents wanting to help the children in their care.
For example, today I received an email in response to a posting I put up on an adoption registry site [ link ], from someone who adopted a child from Lebanon. I recognize the hope and dread often found in these emails I get, and I try to temper my replies so as not to dash (too quickly) hope, or to crush (too quickly or too completely) the mythologies of adoption built up in people’s minds.
But I’m also hugely conscious now of my own reaction to these emails. I admit now that this takes an emotional toll. I’m not comfortable with the burden of dropping on someone what it has taken me eight years (or a lifetime) to be able to handle: the Truth of adoption. When I look at the listings at this site, for example, I know based on names, places, hospitals, orphanages, etc. a lot more about the adoptee listed than s/he is probably wanting to know right off the bat.
A tangent: At the Adoption Initiatives Conference in October, I attended a presentation given by a “search angel” who helps those who were moved out of New York via the Orphan Trains. She stated that legally she was not allowed by New York State law to give out particular information she was privy too. She explained that she would often resort to a kind of “puzzle game” to allow the searcher to find things out for himself or herself.
This boggled my mind, first because I don’t think I could keep such info from someone. Second, because Lebanon has no such legal aspect to such information; the social construct also has less of this idea of personal privacy. Third, because I don’t like such games. And so when faced with “bridging” realms, as it were, I am at a loss as to how to ease someone into what is not going to be a pleasant journey.
My question here is one of advice. How do you handle the position of transitional ferryman? How can you ascertain if someone is capable of handling the truth? What responsibility is on us to “successfully” help others deal with what we know?
I don’t know if other adoptees feel as I do but I always feel a strong sense of wanting to help them find the truth and justice in the midst of so many lies and so much injustice.As a worker I felt a strong sense of responsibility to help them deal with the information I had. Not all situations are the same and it is hard to judge sometimes who can handle the hard truth and how.It is a matter of finding the right way to tell, sometimes taking tiny steps and not rushing the process.If we volunteer our services we have no less responsibility and our duty always must be to the adoptee and their welfare.
How do you tell people that the road they may travel will be long and bumpy, filled with rocks and places that the spring rains had washed out? That at some point the steepness will be overwhelming or that there will be a snowstorm in July? If we haven’t had those experiences, in other challenges, but especially in terms of a relationship, how could we ever possibly imagine what that will truly be like? We can’t, no matter how much someone prepares us.
And it doesn’t help that there is a social mythology of genetic remembrance, that we will fall in to each other’s arms, long lost family reunited in love and longing. Usually by the time we make those connections there is so much water under the bridge. And the emotions surrounding the event, for everyone in this mixture of adoption – the adoptee, the adoptive parents, the biological parents, the biological siblings, the extended family of all, the community – are astronomical and chaotic. My mom was supportive, yet there was a sadness that somehow she might “lose me”. My dad was furious that I would search. My birthmother was ashamed that she wasn’t able to do what was needed to keep me. My siblings were at once curious and resentful. Who had I turned out to be and would I be stuck up and look down on them, believing they were less than? My extended family on my mom’s side wondered why I needed to make this search; my extended family on my birthmother’s side wondered what took me so long.
There were challenges, some bureaucratic and others personal and intentional, against finding my family. There was a whole society of American Indians that didn’t want me back in the 1980s and 1990s because I wasn’t “authentic” enough. Many of them were from the boarding school generation and they believed federal assimilation programs stopped with them. But it didn’t. It continued into child placement. And when I began my search, I was young, in my 20s. And I gave up because it hurt so much. It hurt to be dismissed by the society in which I was raised, as well as dismissed by the society from which I’d come. It hurt to be dismissed by not only individuals, but family and community as well. Was there no one in my corner? No. Not really. But I kept trying to come home. And I finally did, in 1993.
Twenty years later, the road is still bumpy. My birthmother is dead, but I’d been able to visit four times, none of which felt particularly healing for either of us. My birthsister, while wanting to have a close and loving relationship, still feels resentment; that somehow I received something she didn’t and should have. And we dance this dance of fear and anger until the chaos overwhelms us, and then we come back and try to establish a relationship again. My birthbrother, though we are close, is wary of my judgment, and I, his. My mom doesn’t want to talk in depth about this family that used to be mine, and I can’t blame her. I have three other birthsisters, two of which will not communicate with me, and a third who is neutral; she can take me, or leave, me and I, her. I have a birthbrother with whom I have no relationship whatsoever. I have an aunt and uncle who have been my mentors and my guardians, as much as they could be, and I have a myriad of other extended family that keep me at arm’s length, mainly because I was never really part of them. I have friends on the reservation who are supportive and people who want to undo everything I am fighting for – to have adoptees/fosters acknowledged – because they believe we taint the community.
How can you prepare someone for this tangle of roots?
This road of reunification is not reunification. If it were unified to begin with we wouldn’t be where we are. But it is a road of meeting – meeting each other where we are in life. But that genetic memory thing? It’s a myth, and as much as I would want it different, my family and I are friends, I’m not sure we fit the term “family”. They may disagree. But my fences are still up and I’m not sure if they’ll ever go down. And theirs are too. We are all ready to bolt if the going gets tough.
But I don’t know how much tougher it will be. That road back there? It was pretty darn bumpy. And I can’t see it changing any time soon.
You make me realize that were I to follow through on starting to research for my birth-family, that if I found them, I would be very upfront, “Those of you who want nothing to do with me, feel free to say so. So mote it be.” It’s not only matter of not wanting to be a burden; I don’t want the hassle of people non-enthusiastic about me.
I like reading the sentence how you are meh to your one sister and she to you. I think it is very humanly mature to admit that in families not everyone must have some fondness for each other. It’s just sometimes not the case.
In Satchidananda’s (1988) commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita (specifically on the beginning of chapter 8), he writes: “Sometimes people think, ‘Ah, that person is all-knowing and all-capable. If he will just say I’m all right, instantly I’ll be all right.’ It’s like asking me to take the pill for you. We have to face our karma, our mistakes. If we made a mistake somewhere, sometime, we have to pay the price for it, and it takes time. It can’t happen overnight. ¶ If I had the capacity to change you overnight, I [wouldn’t] do it. Sometimes I might have the ability. Still I won’t do it. Does it sound like a contradiction? But if I do it, it’s me doing it, not you. What you did, you have to undo. I shouldn’t undo it. If I undo it, you won’t learn the lesson yourself. And you can’t continue that way. You have to earn your food. It takes time and patience” (117-8).
Let me say immediately I can find ways to fault this approach. Satchidananda intends his remarks in a self-empowering way, but it easily can be turned to victim-blaming (and even revictimization). This point of view also presupposes a social milieu that would permit me actually to undo “what I did”; otherwise, we are in the same neoliberal boat as currently: being told that we need to earn our living in the marketplace to be entitled to anything while the 1% outsource all possible means of earning that living out of the country. This point of view also tens to elide whatever role Satchidananda (or Krishna) are supposed to play in all of this; I may have to undo my karma, but how do YOU figure into that? Merely as a spokesperson for a dubiously pertinent DIY outlook, which will finally lead to me “learning some nebulous lesson?”
When I, for myself, start from the premise that I suffer because of my karma: first of all, my suffering immediately makes more sense. It’s not an all-loving god’s doing, etc. I suffer because of my past; and I determine how I view my past, so in that respect, I make my past. I find it awkward to advocate this position for others, because of what I list above, but I also get a lot more “get up and go” and “mileage” out of thinking this way for myself, and I can’t imagine I am the only one who does so.
However, the “truth” is neither “it’s all your fault” or “it’s all my fault.” And where I find the main problematic consequence is that, having accepted my karma as a way to move forward, there is no acknowledgment of the “world’s karma” so to speak. Again, i can buy the neoliberal austerity that I need to earn my own keep; but those who arrange the world must at least make it possible for me to do so, i.e., they cannot actively make it impossible for me to do so.
If the position of Krishna or Satchidnanada in this passage is, “I can’t walk your walk for you,” then what is the role? It seems to me it must be enlightenment–not simply the provision of information. Arjuna says, “I don’t want to fight my relatives; give me an alternative,” and Krishna replies (in one answer) with, “You are them.” That’s a totally different reframing than Arjuna was asking for, but from the position that Krishna occupies, he provided one (of several) different framings.
So that seems like the position you re in. There is a reason why we might want to contact our birth-relatives, but is that desire the real, genuine, underlying impulse? All these years I’ve thought I wanted a little brother–but actually, it seems I wanted to be the little brother. So if I sought out my birth relatives, it would be (in part) to have the experience of being a little brother. But instead, I get that from you, Daniel, at least to some degree.
And so I said to Krishna, “Krishna, I want to be a little brother,” and he surprised me by saying, “You already are.” This is enlightenment, not information.
As human beings, we’re not omniscient int he way that a (fictional) creation like Krishna is, but in a relative way vis-a-vis (y)our knowledge of what is involved in (or can be involved in) going down the road of reunification, we have a relatively greater awareness (not just more information) that we can impart. And that’s exactly what inspiring enlightenment is.
A belated thanks to all those responding. SL, you hit on what I think unnerves me most: Somehow I know that all of the time it took me to get ready for the “Truth” was required to handle that truth. So put in a position to “short-cut” that for someone else, I am loathe to do so. I don’t feel comfortable handling such “cargo”.
At the same time, my day-to–day conversational mode has changed. Issues and problems are worked out if it takes two minutes or two hours. There is an expectation of honesty and full honesty. The common goal is to clear the air as soon as possible and as openly as possible; this often involves additional interlocutors who chime in as needed. Backchannels or ulterior motives are not evident.
This more and more runs up against the more didactic, nit-picking, and literal conversational style of the place of my acculturation. I feel less and less willing to “travel” between the two, because the one is quite freeing and the other is quite stultifying, if not creating of hierarchies that I wish to avoid. It is also expected that emotion be avoided, and this is too affected for me now.
Not sure where I’m going here; but just wanted to say “thanks”.