Adoption and “Chaperone Syndrome”.

I saw a post that compared adoption to Stockholm Syndrome, the name given to those kidnapped who eventually identify with their captors [link to article].

It got me thinking about adoptees who no longer identify with their adopters, for reasons having to do with age, evolution, rematriation, etc. But I wanted to expand a little bit based on my experience every time I come back for an extended stay Stateside.

I’m dubbing this experience “Chaperone Syndrome”, and if I had to come up with a succinct definition, I would say: “The desire to avoid questions concerning connection to place by seeking accompaniment with such a local individual”.

I don’t find myself to be comfortable on my own here. This is quite similar to how I felt growing up, and yet quite different at the same time. If I’m with one of my siblings, or my mother, or friends, etc. I don’t have the same anxiety.

I’m throwing this out there to see if this resonates with anyone, and to gather further thoughts on the subject.

18 thoughts on “Adoption and “Chaperone Syndrome”.

  1. To up the ante, to warrant the designation of a syndrome, the tendency should be of a fairly long-standing duration (a week or two here or there shouldn’t qualify) and, more importantly, it should have a distinct, deleterious effect on one’s life.

    For example, one becomes a homebody (or even agoraphobic) because without a chaperone, going out (or going somewhere unfamiliar or new) becomes well-night impossible. One can’t find new work, because without a chaperone, there’s no real likelihood of taking that plunge into the new.

    I think in the present case, time of purchase (adoption) will probably matter a lot. I have stuff that resembles what you’re discussing, but it seems more rooted in not wanting to look like a fool (vanity) than any dependency on having a chaperone (and I was bought around five days old). In some places, not feeling safe without a chaperone is wholly rational as well, especially if one doesn’t speak the language. Lastly, things can just be more fun when another is along for the ride.

    I offer this not to discount the notion, but to try to render it more clearly.

    • Stockholm Syndrome is certainly temporary, and a function of “present circumstance”, no? I’m not sure we need to get stuck on semantics; I don’t actually think I’m “suffering” from a “syndrome” at all; I was making a rhetorical statement, that’s it. The greater discussion should probably revolve around how a transracial adoptee might deal with a “second wave” feeling of not belonging, and wishing to avoid that, despite a more “sure” sense of self that comes from having left their place of acculturation….

      • I might be hearing the Internet wrong, but I read some impatience out of your reply. Could be I’m in a touchy mood.

        “The greater discussion” may indeed be the more fruitful thing, and I’m all for it; I was responding to the psychiatric language (metaphor) used to frame the question.

        I’ve been institutionalized for being crazy; I’m sometimes (unduly) hypersensitive about that kind of usage, metaphorical or not. So my point was, if that’s going to be the metaphor, then let’s fill out the metaphor more accurately.

        And if not–which may be better–then indeed, let’s have the discussion revolve around &c.

        I wasn’t suggesting you were claiming a “syndrome” and I wasn’t ascribing one to you.

      • The mistake is also partially mine since I assume (wrongly perhaps) that in other items where we’ve discussed the psychological it is clear that I refuse diagnostic labels…

        I wouldn’t call what I’m describing a fear, or a phobia, or something we put in a column labeled “negative reactions”….it’s almost proactive deterrence.

        What I don’t like is the feeling of “fitting in” fatigue that sets in when I’m back. For what it’s worth, It’s not so bad in North Jersey….

  2. I am an adoptee and suffer from stockholm syndrome where i am grateful to my abusers 😦 I have never heard of the chaperone theory but that does make a lot of sense to me I functioned a lot better when I had people to look after ..but then again us adoptees are known for being people pleasers we are terrified of being abandoned again…I was also biracial raised in a british white household strict discipline ect. I never felt that i fitted in.

  3. To that extent a “normal” adult views the A-word experience as parallel to the Stockholm Syndrome vis-à-vis dependencies and a rather human desire to sit by, if not become, the hand of power, the term might be a useful tool to open a discussion about some of the negative aspects of the A-word. At a deeper level, however, I suspect each one of us who is now vocal about our experience would find, immediately or eventually, that discussing our experience under the framework of the Stockholm Syndrome to be superficial.

    Whether as infants or young children our [faux] family, comprised of parents and any preexisting family members, was the unnatural environment into which we were introduced/inducted to the falsity of this family and to all of the beliefs (whether or not rational) each family member held about themselves, one another, and about “us”. This is a far cry from a situation in which an individual or group of individuals is abducted, typically for a purpose that does not directly involve the abductee(s) and for a relatively brief period of time.

    When one challenges the A-word System, one immediately faces people that [believe they] “need” the A-word to “save the children” (or to fulfill the unspoken desires of the infertile to “have kids and make a family”). Those believers, immersed in their culture, are unable to see any first-cause(s) that gave rise to the “need” to save children in the first instance (and blinds them to the predatory nature of the infertile taking children from others).* When one speaks of their personal experience, one immediately faces the “get over it” hurdle.

    –Food for thought– Perhaps the A-word System is more akin to Colonialism than the Stockholm Syndrome.

    *I am presuming that exigent circumstances of parental death or unfitness are absent, and I am further temporarily ignoring the effects of war, globalization (economic “neo-“colonialism) and similar externally-imposed matters.

    PS: Once I figured out I had been lied to in significant ways, I ceased playing the role of Stockholm Sycophant and began walking, by myself, where ever my feet led me…

    • I have replaced the former analogies of “drinking the Kool-Aid” and “being in the fog” with Fanon’s “colonized mind” for some time now. Quoting him:

      Like adopted children who only stop investigating the new family framework at the moment when a minimum nucleus of security crystallizes in their psyche, the native intellectual will try to make European culture his own.

      [PS: This will be the basis for my presentation at the Adoption Initiative Conference over Memorial Day Weekend….]

      Getting back to Snow Leopard’s absolutely valid caveats, I prefer this as a framework which allows for an “exit” which implies adoptee agency and empowerment; which points a finger at society and not the individual; and which doesn’t impose notions of mental “damage” in any way.

      It also might explain a bit the feeling of living in an “occupied zone”, and needing a “chaperone” to navigate that….

  4. It occurs to me that there’s another aspect to this “syndrome”, a bit more virtual and abstract in terms of “place”, which is when we rely on those who “pass” within the dominant discourse to take up the cause because they are given more credit and credibility. I’m not in any way meaning to diminish those who make common cause with us; it just seems again to show up the systemic aspect of what we are activated against in terms of racism and classism.

    • Daniel:

      I’m not clear when the “rely” (of “we rely” etc) comes into play? I think I’m missing some context, or my view of the “resistance” (being from Transracialeyes) may skew my general understanding of what the resistance looks like overall?

      Also, besides the obvious parts, to be able to pass in one domain (the dominant one) may precisely mean not passing in another (the non-dominant domain). How does that relate to what you’ve written here (and the post generally)?

      Hopefully this isn’t a beginner’s question. It seems like the perpetual duality as insiders/outsiders who are never quite both makes the concept of “passing” more textured or nuanced than usual.

      • I appreciate the questions…because it’s all kind of murky in my head, and as you are pointing out, overlaps in particular ways that I should probably be more careful in spelling out.

        To preface I should say that I’m trying of late for a variety of reasons to be expansive in terms of various activist efforts taking place within the adoption realm. I still maintain a position where I feel it necessary to point out when efforts take on the trappings of the dominant mode, for example, and I might even consider them to be willfully destructive, but I try now to see how a discussion of them can feed their energy back into actual resistance, as opposed to forming polarized camps within what should be groups with common cause.

        I was elliptically making reference to some recent situations along these lines, where I felt that my presence in a conversation was itself detrimental to such a furtherance of our activism, this having to do with the “easier task” of attacking me personally (along ethnic and religious lines) as opposed to answering critically points which were raised (this was concerning CHIFF, and its supporters).

        So the “relying on” in this case was on those who are supportive of adoptees and their rights, but whose actions might in a different conversation be more “suspect”—adoptive parents, social workers, therapists, etc.; generally “white”, generally of means. In terms of this conversation, however, I felt both a kind of “relief” in letting someone else (more toward the “dominant” end of the spectrum) take this up, as well as a certain pain (in realizing how this, in and of itself, just re-iterates the whole adoption hierarchy).

        Please let me know if that is not making sense. This whole topic maybe speaks of a point in our own evolutions when we are a) able to fend for ourselves and yet b) might choose/prefer/resign ourselves to “re-assuming” subaltern positionings….

  5. Daniel & Snow Leopard

    I think “we” are able to join ranks to resist only to the extent our views coincide, or at least do not collide in relation to whatever it is we are resisting.

    I do not know where you are at in your lives, but relative to my existence “the damage has been done” and I think there is no getting over it except to disentangle from various myths, beliefs, and social constructs that include, but are by no means limited to those surrounding the establishment of the A-word as an institution/organization. I believe this to be suitable work for adults who have grown up as outsiders stuck, not inside as fully assimilated beings, but in an ill-defined space someplace between full outcasts and the mainstream of society.

    As an adult I have come to realize the A-word institution/organization created or enabled the creation of the environment of key early life experiences, the sequelae of which episodically crop up even to this day in the form of microtraumas that those with clear-cut positions within families and cultures are unable to recognize, let alone understand. When and where unrecognizability and non-understanding exist is exactly when and where I must face a difficult truth that arose from the existence of the institution/organization itself (a ‘re’ that really has no direct connection with unpleasant experiences that relate to the “whatness of being” that some of us, perhaps due to having been viewed as potentially dangerous “changelings” for far too long, have become familiar with): I am not one of them, but neither can I say I am one of “us”.

    I hear the Sirens calling: Join “us” to repair the institution/organization (no, join “US” to dismantle it). Heeding either call, I think, will lead us to founder as individual human beings because all that can be done with or to the institution/organization is to make modest changes that will largely leave the dis-ease of the underlying society untouched and so, left to fester, society as a whole will continue to treat women and children as chattel property, remain divided by color, religion, national origin, economic standing, educational attainment, and sex and gender.

    We might rail against the machine and attempt to put the Political Process and/or Social Movement theories into play. Unfortunately, every tactic, strategy and playbook has its counterpart and such effort would likely result in much heat and smoke, but no fire because the institution/organization is situated within a legal and societal framework that always calls for argument, but seldom calls for action.

    I recently came across the notion one may either serve the organization or the cosmos (with the cosmos being “the Greater Good”), but not both simultaneously.* I think this suggests that by directly resisting/opposing the institution/organization we may inadvertently serve it by: Aggrandizing those who extoll its virtues; Incorrectly or inadequately establishing a single focal point around which all A-related discourse revolves; Expending resources on professionals and experts who, while learned, exist to feed/exist by feeding off the institution/organization’s positive and negative aspects; and, etc.

    Perhaps the absolute best “we” can do is to support one another in our separate endeavors, but I will suggest that the A-word is not the true problem — the true problem is one or more sick societies.

    “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” Michel Foucault

    When asked, “What are you?” I used to say, “I’m adopted; I don’t know.”

    I have since grown up — strength comes from being undefined and undefinable.

    * See, Porter, J.M., Ed., 1984. “Sophia and Praxis: The Boudaries of Politics”. Chatham House Publishers, Inc., Chatham, NJ.

  6. Oh wow! I wrote that referenced article eons ago and am happy it’s finding new readers, since I’ve put down my pen.


    About your chaperone syndrome…I can’t imagine that. Growing up, I preferred to distance myself from my family members in public. There was nothing worse than the inquiry our group outings generated. When I am alone, there is less questioning.

    I guess I can’t relate to navigating through connection to place either. Like Lucy, wild horses couldn’t drag me back to the locus of my adopted life. If, for some unfathomable reason I did revisit, I would not want to claim any connection to it, as any reminder of the vast accumulation of those microtraumas still induces PTSD. (And I’m sticking only to talking about the typical transracial adoptee experience I had). I’m lucky all those ties are gone and I don’t have to summon the strength or grace required for a family visit.

    Instead of a need-to-please, like many adoptees speak of, I have always had a need to disengage. It has always felt like nobody can protect my interests but me, and that I shouldn’t have to explain my existence to anyone anywhere in any culture. I view this as an empowering thing. On the flip side, I have become too skilled at disengaging, and it has often resulted in isolation. As I grow older, I find connections to be brief interludes over time or very fleeting, and none of them are place-bound.

    Perhaps, instead of thinking of it as a subaltern position, you are simply disengaging? It is somehow fitting that the ones who had all the agency have to do all the explaining and navigating.

    Perhaps you’re just feeling uncomfortable alone because the reality of your situation is that you are a brown man in a white world that continues to have a really violent reaction to the sight of the likes of you? That it is a visceral protective mechanism in the face of very real danger? Having a posse of racially accepted people around you could totally ease a lot of aggression. So maybe this is more about the racial part of our transracially adopted sentence.

    I’ve always thought of “chaperone” as equal parts protection and prevention: protection from unwanted attention, but also prevention from breaking free of scripted behavior, so I don’t think you really want a chaperone, because I see you as one who pushes back when oppressed.


    I totally concur.

    Having been in the activist trenches and also trying to understand the “them” in this highly contentious and polarized issue, I have come to the conclusion that eliminating these institutions that simplistically call for adoption as the solution will never transpire in my lifetime, and that the best we can hope for is improving the scenario for orphans and reduction of transracial/transnational adoptions through our efforts at educating the public about its sober realities. In this, all former adoptees can work together, because it was freaking traumatic for all of us, Stockholm’d or not.

  7. Can you elaborate more about what the syndrome is about? Are you saying you do not like or feel uncomfortable being alone? If you could elaborate more it would help. Thank you.

    • Well, first, again, I was not completely serious in thinking it is a syndrome, so that was a bit facetious on my part. But to elaborate: The last time I was back in the States was after 10 years of having lived in Lebanon. I feel I have managed to regain a sense of an identity that was lost due to adoption. This involves ethnicity, if you will, but also faith, and both of these are under attack (to put it mildly) in the “West”. So there were times, especially in, say, a very homogeneous town like where my brother used to live (“Krispy-Kreme white”, as he puts it), that I preferred to be accompanied by someone in my adoptive family, like a “voucher” or a “pass” that made it okay to be in public there. I hope that helps!

  8. I wanted to come back to this item because of a tweet I came across from Arissa Oh asking whether it was “scarier” to find oneself in “all-white rural areas” now or not. I’m living in Vancouver now, and apologies for disabusing Americans of their idea that Canada is some ideal destination in these times, I’ve never had to listen to more egregious (and actionable, I imagine) stuff being said to me everywhere from the university where I work to the buses I ride around the city.

    When I was moving my stuff here, my colleague, originally from Indiana, kindly offered to help drive a UHaul across the continent. I would just have to get the truck to his family’s place in Indiana where he was spending the Christmas holidays. As much as I appreciated his offer, I said to him: “Well, to be honest, there are places in the country that I don’t really want to be driving alone right now, and sadly that starts in Western New Jersey.”

    People ask me if I’ve taken in any of the wilderness activities here, or if I have visited any of the natural settings; I have been asked to go up to Whistler and out to Victoria for various academic activities; I imagine it might be nice to visit Seattle and Portland. But I keep coming back to the history of this part of the continent, and the inherent racism and xenophobia of the place, and I decline. For psychological but also reasons having to do with fear of physical harm.

    Arissa’s tweet ended with “Big sigh of relief being back in my liberal bubble”….I have to say I don’t even find that to be comforting. And in thinking back to when I started this item, I really resent the idea of needing a chaperone to navigate what, for reasons entirely out of my hands, I am forced to call “home”.

  9. Total resonance with me I think it’s so common with adoptees especially transracial adoptees that and what I have come to term “born again adoptees” who identify so completely with the western ideal of adoption. Saving a non white baby from a culture and country which is inferior and less civilised to a western white country. These “born again adoptees” are so damaged that the only way they can exist is by assuming (even though they will never be) the mantle of white privilege. They are voracious and intense critics of any adoptee who dares to challenge the forever family fairy tale view of transracial adoption.

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

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