The Adopted as Hero

In Jung’s Symbols of Transformation, at one point he remarks on the irregular origins of birth for heroes in many sacred traditions:

The hero is not born like an ordinary mortal because his birth is rebirth from the mother-wife. That is why the hero so often has two mothers. As Rank has shown with a wealth of examples, the hero is frequently exposed and then reared by foster-parents (¶494)[i]

This (mythological) rationalization of the necessity of abandonment and fostering clearly goes to the issue of adoption. It shows how culture must glorify such abandonment, as a means by which its heroes get created.[ii]

An outsider may often make a hero; by not being natively acculturated, the outsider may see cultural possibilities and courses of action otherwise invisible to insiders. (Not all heroes originate from the Outside, of course.)  At a most banal level, this amounts to the insistence, “you’re special,” and all that that brings with it. And while Jung notes that, because we have two mothers, “the mother-in-law often finds it difficult not to make her son-in-law her son-lover in the old mythological manner” (¶495), he leaves out of this examples that step-fathers may similarly act out toward their adopted daughters.

But if only some heroes begin as alienated from the culture where they live, the vast majority end in alienation, precisely because the uniqueness of their experience and deeds makes them fundamentally unreadable to the culture where they live. They are acclaimed but not appreciated, are spoken of but not understood. Their consolation lies in having been called upon and having actually accomplished a great task for the sake of people who cannot actually grasp what was done. But, importantly, it is only if they undertake this thankless task, if they assent to helping their foster-culture, that they will be called a hero.

Patriarchy, especially as it reformulated itself during the rise of the Middle Class, took the turn of even more severely restricting the role of woman while simultaneously flattering her with an idealized description, rather than the old demonized one of Eve as destroyer of everyone’s happiness. So too, this valorisation of the hero (as necessary, as fundamental to culture) is meant to to make up for our sleepless nights. Thus, both the new myth of Woman and the myth of the fostered Hero serve to flatter and placate females and adoptees while providing also two cornerstone to patriarchal ideology.

So the question is: without intending any facile self-congratulations, can we claim the experience of the hero(ine) in any healthy way, or is the insider’s (only ever only partial) assimilation the only route open to us? This “hero or bystander” dichotomy is obviously oversimplified but breaking out of its simplifications is one of the things I’d like examples of for this post.

[i] He adduces several examples and notes as well, “Thus Christ’s redemptive death on the cross was understood as a ‘baptism,’ that is to say, as rebirth through the second mother, symbolized by the tree of death [the cross]” (¶494), which I mention only for the way it attempts to rationalise the necessity of the cross-death, and hence also the rebirth of the hero by a regression of libido (psychic energy) back to the Source (the Mother, the Unconscious). And here should be added, as Jung does not, a greater sensitivity to the variety of cross-cultural practices that involve the “fostered hero” motif in different cultures, as Daniel has written about previously. And I will add also that for all of Jung’s talk about incest-taboos and regression to the Mother, in part this is detritus n leftovers from his association with Freud, which he was divesting himself of in this text, but at the same time, he quite genuinely means to take incest-taboo and mother regression he finds in myths s symbols–symbolic specifically of (as I said above) regression of the libido to the Unconscious. For all of the unfortunate sexism of his discourse (and sexism of his outlook at times), his discussion of the emergence of the ego-consciousness (as the Hero) should properly be understood in non-gendered terms.

[ii] Now, Jung does propose to understand the typically male-oriented and patriarchal hero imagery he analyses from mythology, which normally embodies considerable misogyny, as more properly understood in terms of a nongendered regression of libido back to the Source. And he objects in numerous places in his writings to any literalization of psychic contents–the sort of thing whereby sons might come to believe that they must, like JC on the cross, reject and insult their mothers in order to become men, that they must internalize patriarchal misogyny.

5 thoughts on “The Adopted as Hero

  1. Sadly, I would at first thought answer “only if….” I want to give this some more thought, and will definitely come back to it. But the “otherwise familied” as you so well document are heroes for the most part if and when they return to their people and families, or else if they accomplish a task that makes up for not returning to their people and families. I’m thinking of the “adoption” stories of the Bible and Qur’an, but also the majority of fables and folk tales involving familial separation that we know, from Hansel and Gretel to Cinderella and back again….Really great question.

  2. I was going to post this somehow but was having trouble forming it into a panel question. But then I saw your post and think maybe it is better as a reply here.

    Instead of adoptee as hero, I think maybe it is orphan as hero. The adoptee, to my mind, is the waif who lucked out or the favored over the biological sons. The orphan, however, has been on an epic journey. The orphan is the feral child who has crossed the primitive/civilized divide. The orphan is the protagonist who overcomes all through their own resourcefulness and perseverance.

    But what does orphan really mean? I mean, really mean?

    In my experience, there is a cloud that passes over everyone's face whenever someone realizes I was an orphan. There is a kind of instant respect afforded. Then gravity and darkness. And then a ray of sun when they remember I was adopted. Or the inverse, a ray of sun when they hear I was adopted, followed by an almost panicked pang of pain when they pause to think about what that meant in the life of a little person growing up, and I am suddenly a tiny orphan waif standing before them.

    This is universal; cross-cultural – in my adopting country and in the country of my birth as well. It is also universal to almost hysterically start counting my (not their) blessings, so they can feel better.

    And there's nothing I can do except wait patiently while they find some way to grapple with their momentary discomfort. And then comes trying to place us in society. To many of them, their initial orphan hero, upon fantasy check, connotes handicapped, disadvantaged, broken…and it would be rude to reveal that…

    And of course all their inner conflict gets magnified even more when they inevitably factor in the culture they know, the obvious racial differences, the myths they have heard about where we came from, their assumptions and moral judgments.

    I write it off as human nature. And patiently wait for them to collect themselves. And then bring them back to earth with something normalizing and mundane. This is/has been my and probably every adoptee's role from the time we could nod in compliant agreement: to tend the emotions of others.

    Before we were adopted we were orphans. By nature or paper, war, famine, imposed benevolence, greed, etc…we were turned into orphans. But once an orphan always an orphan because, as I quote from some website,

    An orphan after all, is not someone who has no parents. An orphan is one who does not know their parents.

    That line really struck me. I thought how we continue to be orphans, separated from knowing who/what was lost/stolen. It was in reference to a healing workshop run by a palliative care counselor, whose school is called Orphan Wisdom. It is not marketed to orphans and adoptees, but to the larger body of people who have lost someone they love. In a strange and beautiful twist, the name he chose for his school elevates orphans as examples of beings that are not pitiable but from whom lessons can be learned. Every day we carry our losses with us and carry on.

    I really love this. I am tired of the characterization of adoptees as dysfunctional due to their trauma, past and present. I feel expanded, annealed, and stronger. And I never want another child to have to go through this fire, despite these benefits. The more I think about what it means to be have been an orphan, and to continue being an orphan, and to continue being, the more I feel how beautiful we all are.

    • I don’t want to seem to scant your reply with a short response, and you succinctly put so much so well anyway.

      I think “orphan” could be bulk-replaced in my post and it would not change the meaning of my post but it would change how it reads, in a positive direction. Insofar as orphans get adopted, there is a period of time when the orphan is not an adoptee, so changing the term to refer to ourselves as orphans reclaims that original, non-transacted state. Also, as George Carlin makes obvious in his famous bit about the transformation of the term “shell shock” into “battle fatigue” then “operational exhaustion” then “post-traumatic stress disorder,” as he calls out how institutionalizing language obfuscates the actuality going on, “adoptee” adds a syllable (always a sign of progress!) and offers a more sanitized and derivative word to hide the more visceral actually of the “orphan” behind it. So I very much appreciate the word change and, because of the connotative differences, this makes for a useful feint when dealing with the orphaning industry and all of its tentacular shenanigans.

      I’m also struck by your remark: “There is a kind of instant respect afforded.” I don’t know that I’ve ever had that experience (or noticed it). Where/when did this sort of thing happen?

      It’s heartening to see you write, “The more I think about what it means to be have been an orphan, and to continue being an orphan, and to continue being, the more I feel how beautiful we all are.” Even if I only self-consciously proposed the adopted (the orphan) as hero, you have more firmly embraced the idea and stated it.

      In my latest novel, an entitled business owner goes about lording it over clerks and cashiers. Eventually, I make him confront the “better character” of the clerks and cashiers who have the strength of will to keep smiling through the course of the transaction, &c. In other words, I critique middle-class entitlement with “lower class” strength of character (hopefully not merely idealized!), and this seems the same sort of thing as orphans are called upon to do, on similar grounds. Thus, the class element that Daniel wisely reminds us about often ties into the familial, where the “lower class” child must continue to operate in the face of parental (bourgeois) entitlement.

  3. Ah, it’s kind of a street cred thing. That moment is a millisecond long. Easy to miss!

    And I’m very pleased my words heartened you! I am proud of all we have weathered. I think we are heroic.

    As I get older I only identify as an orphan, (It’s really interesting to me how little the term orphan is used) as that’s what I am. That is the on-going fact.

    I reject being dubbed an adoptee and all that goes along with it. Soooo much baggage is loaded on us to carry. Baggage that isn’t ours. Not only, as you say, does adoptee “hide the more visceral actually of the “orphan” behind it,” but the suffix ee indicates we are beneficiaries of someone else’s magnanimity and that instantly changes our status and regard, and typically not fairly.

    People (judging from the reactions I get) think it ridiculous when I only use adoptee in the past tense. But it’s an important distinction to me. I’m no longer helpless and dependent on the charity of others. I paid my dues for this blessing and am done. I’m still paying the interest. But I don’t owe on the principal anymore. And because I don’t want/expect/take advantage of any exceptional treatment I can, therefore, opt out of adoptee status. I don’t throw this up in anger or to be obnoxiously challenging. It’s just more descriptive of my current truth.

    I find the term adoptee very disempowering. Upon emancipation, I would like all of us to stop being referred to that way.

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

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