Disabling Petitioner’s Syndrome: Psychological and Structural Aspects

As I plod slowly along on the slow trail of information-gathering to hunt down trails of my possible genetic origins through different genetic testing tools, I sometimes note an obnoxious petitioner’s syndrome that being adopted [1] can engender.

Petitioner’s syndrome points psychologically to having to address a greater power for essential information and structurally to working around the various social constructs that have sprung up to help and hinder individuals who cannot otherwise access that essential information.

In the case of adoption, this essential information points to stuff considered some of the most basic for the non-adopted: where did I come from; who are my relatives; what kind of health issues might I face, &c. The extremity and significance of this information exacerbates petitioner’s syndrome. It can make the adopted more circumspect in approach, sometimes sneaker—or at least they will feel they must be: precisely because so much seems at stake. A refusal to answer a petition likely has very wide-ranging consequences. As a result of this, structural features include predatory lawyers, kinder (but still expensive, sometimes) search angels, and various legalities (opened but still limited information about adoptions) and illegalities (bribery) that circumvent control over access to such information.

Petitioner’s syndrome manifests as when, having already sent off my DNA testing kit, I make up a story to my adoptive father about intending to test simply to provide me a pretext to ask him, once again, for any details he knows about my genetic contributors. As the only source of such information—whether his information is degraded by the passage of years or was ever true in the first place—I have to feel like I’ve created a circumstance for my asking that will elicit the actual best truth from him; I need a pretext to guarantee his honesty. Petitioner’s syndrome manifests structurally in the necessity of resorting to genetic testing in order to obtain information about one’s immediate family in the first place.

And it manifests in  a hybrid structural/psychological way there in that context while rummaging in the genetic testing communities as well. Having a higher than typical (for a Caucasian) contribution from sub-Saharan Africa, my roots, in the United States at least, apparently go back to a tri-racial group in West Virginia (and their descendants). An example shows how this raises the spectre of petitioner’s syndrome. One of the previously best-established genealogists from that population of this population (usually referred to as the Chestnut Ridge People) wrote his most famous book explicitly to deny all traces of African-American heritage in the lineages. (In fact, he adopts the classic dodge, one already well-established amongst the lineages he seeks to document: claiming to be colored, if at all, due to Native American inheritance, not African.) I have already been “warned” by one helpful person that there are people in these lineages who will still maintain this position. I’m fortunate she wasn’t one of them, or that door might have closed.

And so, though I feel honoured (like Pushkin) to have unambiguous and (in evolutionary terms) very recent African-American heritage in my familial past, not everyone I would contact in order to research that past will welcome my efforts. In fact, they might dead-end me. Hence, in my “public profile” (visible to everyone, even those I’m not “sharing” with), I removed the reference to my African-American heritage, reserving it only for my non-public (post-sharing) profile.

The underlying factor of petitioner’s syndrome concerns access to and control of information. The availability of genetic testing allows me to re-contextualise my adoptive parents’ monopoly on birth narratives about me (whether true, false, or indifferent); it permits me to say, “They told you I’m Irish, German, and Welsh. So far, that seems to be true. But I’m also African-American.” Similarly, my petition to the State of Washington for my original birth certificate permits me to say to any that would deny my origins, “No, in fact I am your relative, are we’re part Black.”

Of course, access to adoption records in Washington state (a recent development) points to an increase of social justice precisely because it removes the monopoly the state had on control over that information. It modifies the structural aspects, such as predatory lawyers (or kinder, but expensive) search angels who can bribe or steal their way through the system to uncover this information, because now the path to the information is less blocked.

Any political position about adoption justice, if we must suffer it to exist at all, would therefore seem to demand the elimination of petitioner’s syndrome, psychologically and structurally. One example of this: every adoption must be explicitly and permanently open.


[1] It may have been noted, I refer to “adoptees” as “orphans” now. The orphan is the one who is adopted, remembering that not all orphans get adopted: some get fostered, some die, some commit suicide, some run away, &c. Orphans who must ask others for information about origins will likely wind up in a “petitioner’s syndrome” scenario, but for now at least, I’m proposing that the syndrome arises structurally from adoption.

5 thoughts on “Disabling Petitioner’s Syndrome: Psychological and Structural Aspects

  1. The question perhaps then is do we continue to search knowing that our search is in fact establishing the very structures preventing us from searching in the first place?

    I just said to someone the other day that I have not done genetic (yet) testing because I don’t like the idea of a private company owning such information. I will likely still do it, just to see if it provides any clues.

    Interesting too for me is the fact that these structural incentives, at least in American culture, provide other paths to procure one’s information—PIs, search angels, etc.—but not much in the way of activist resistance, as exists in Spain, Argentina, Guatemala, etc.

    Just throwing some thoughts out there. My path to obtaining nationality here in Lebanon likewise was fraught with similar issues in terms of legal access, the privilege of the seeker, and the “Truth” that the powers that be wanted to keep quiet. My lawyers tend to be on the more activist side of things, but we also know what we are up against.

    There’s something here that speaks to the individual searching (easily kept in line) and groups searching (less so perhaps) that we might explore further? Meaning, how might you collaborate with others from your possible source?

    • For how to collaborate, a part of the issue depends on to what extent it is now “safer” to reverse the (necessary) lineal denial of African heritage. What does it mean for me (for someone who passes) to claim a heritage that others who do not pass, or historically have not passed, and have been taxed for it? I still have the luxury of “outing” myself; others may not.

      The thesis writer I mentioned is as white-appearing as I am and definitely proposes a counter-narrative against those lineal genealogists who deny African ancestry. Her work “outs” everyone (or, more precisely, constructs a narrative that heavily goes in that direction; one can still dispute it). We can say that now, finally, is the time when Bernard Mayhle can “come out of hte closet” about his “true” racial heritage, and I’m sure there’s definitely some social cache that makes the one-drop rule not perfectly the stigma (or political tool) it tended to serve as. Last night, my “best ally” (at 23andMe) asserted in no uncertain terms that one of our historical ancestors is demonstrably not-white (quite contrary to Bernard Mayhle’s vehement insistences). So, the contest over “the truth” still matters and means things are still (highly) at stake.

      I don’t know if I’m addressing your question. Will there be some “genome wide” moment of a Truth Commission, so to speak, where we allow the construct “genetic knowledge” to take on a kind of definitive authority vis-a-vis racial designations. The thesis writer cannily left out genetic information allowing, at least from her sociological angle, her analysis to track the mechanism of “perceived race” (rather than “actual race”). Of course, even in that historical milieu, “perceived race” could run in parallel with or in conflict with “claimed race”–so genetic testing only “bulks up” the “claimed race” side of things. Although, since certain lineal authorities exist within the CRP lines, and get cited as authorities, my “perceived race” might be “white” even as my “claimed race” is “mixed” (or, to use the old terminology “colored”). BUt I’m not sure if this still gets at what you’re getting at. I’m imagining the “allies” and “vectors of change” as intra-group (or group-wide), at least as a starting point.

    • So, there’s this point: “The question perhaps then is do we continue to search knowing that our search is in fact establishing the very structures preventing us from searching in the first place?”

      (I’d add as an aside, it can be a stepping down from privilege to not object to the Powers having your genetic information; this is already widely true for many, many people who are incarcerated–DNA is often and regularly collected.)

      Genetic testing certainly comprises an alternative to the monopoly of access to information, and in that respect offers an alternative to the existing structural features of adoption (State control of information, search angels, predatory lawyers, the utility of bribery, &c). 23andMe had to disable their “health” function (per FDA intervention), but even before that they actually made it difficult to see close relative matches, because of the exposure about health issues that publicly sharing genomes could entail. It appears that, as they were shut down on the health front, they removed the “hide close relatives” default, and now you automatically see people most genetically related to you.

      Genetic testing thus “sneaks up” on adoption roundaboutly; I suspect it originally had a health pitch with an “oh, by the way, it could be useful for genealogies as well” not really worrying much that it might also be used by orphans primarily to circumvent sealed adoption records. So far as I can tell, no State has objected on these grounds and there’s no functionality (at 23andMe) that seems designed (like the health issue initially) to hide the discover of one’s more immediately relatives. (Of course, just because someone appears to be a close relative doesn’t force them to actually share genomes and thus doesn’t permit me to see their non-public profile, where they have most likely listed family names, if any).

      All the same, I feel like I’m illegitimately “up to something”; more precisely, I feel like there can be delicate issues to negotiate if I tell a 2nd cousin, “Hi, adopted and looking!”. I’m of the opinion that 1st and 2nd cousins won’t generally mind a long-lost cousin popping up, but the possibility of needing to proceed circumspectly still seems to exist–or still exerts a pressure.

      A structural objection: as you note, lawyers have more of an activist bent, in part because they must address “systemic issues” (how your individual case fits in with the Law generally). Whether predatory or not, their efforts work at the level of precedents, perhaps articulating new ones (for future petitioners), while genetic testing offers none of this. Individuals can step in, find out what they do, and then move on. At this level, the way that genetic testing supports the status quo is in its failure to challenge the status quo (like a lawyer might). It definitely operates at the “individual” level, even after individuals organise themselves into fora that discuss these things amongst themselves or share genomes for whatever purpose. And, of course, on a broader level still, the $99 it costs for testing at 23andMe is a luxury expense (if not a grim one; can I really afford the $100, but can I really afford not to?). The irony of the cost, of course: Washington’s adoption records open tomorrow, but nothing says I’ll actually get information from that. (I’ll see when I see.)

      It is worth noting in this respect, 23andMe has responded to pressure from its users. I certainly don’t know the histories involved, but I have seen forum posts (especially around the “close relative issue”) where users induced policy changes in how 23andMe made data sharing work. And there are, of course, whole groups of adopted searchers.

      Importantly, it seems the most “sympathetic argument” by orphans to getting their files opened involve claims to need to know about possible health issues. This, it seems, dovetails with 23andMe’s initial attempt to tap a market (people interest in health issues generally, not just adoptees). But whatever legitimacy that concern has, certainly for myself an interest in “health issues” plays second fiddle to my “deeper interest” in familial relatedness itself. Like the pretext I had to (or felt I had to) supply my father to ensure his honest reply, it seems like “health issues” is the plausible pretext used for force the Law (the State) the be forthcoming about information related to one’s origins. The suppression of the “health issue” functionality of 23andMe, thus, flushes out more into the open any “deeper” or “more legitimate” interest on the part of adoptees. If genetic testing won’t give me access to the health information I should be entitled to, then why would I test at all? It’s because “health issues” is an only secondary interest, if even that. It might just be a pretext for determining, “Who sired me.”

      So, genetic testing (at 23andMe now) doesn’t “automatically” reproduce the structures of oppression, because it forces us to drop the “usual channel” of petition (“I want to know about my health”) and necessarily redirects it: either I simply say forthrightly, “I want to know who sired me” or I can use “genealogical interests” as the cover for my searching. And I have found myself, when sending introductory notes to strangers, placing more emphasis on distant ancestry than close. The State remains non-sympathetic to “genealogical interests”; no one gets their adoption file opened on those grounds alone. So the State does in fact lose some of its monopoly on control, and (to speak of it as if it “cares”) leaves to the complexity of the topic, the relative expense, faith in human incompetence (with respect to doing genetic testing correct but also in people correctly interpreting the implications of the results), but also its real indifference toward the birth parents (the State really doesn’t care to “protect” them from orphans finding them) that the structures of genetic testing that crop up will make “finding one’s origins” still sufficiently difficult to inhibit most from looking (or not answering those who do choose to look, &c).

      • In answer to your aside: I would argue that it isn’t “giving up privilege” to allow a corporation to have this information. The information is kept on all of us; the privilege comes in its not being used against us. Given the questions/comments I get now when I cross the border or fly domestically, I would say I’m at the cusp of this “privilege”, and this as a result of being a class traitor here and there, and from having returned to such a problematic “place” as Lebanon.

        I don’t know that “giving up” this information chips away at the power structure, just like the “flâneur” in no way challenges what is and isn’t public space by her random strolls through a city. I’m really careful with applying “populist” outcomes to corporate technology; I remember the promises of the “desktop revolution”, the digital classroom, etc. ad infinitum.

        I don’t mean to take away from your point, just clarifying this notion of privilege in terms of myself. I’m hyper-aware of what I have in this regard (at this point not a lot) and it’s a whole other series of discussions to tackle it….

        Structurally it seems to me we are talking about consumers and not individuals; the pricetag of the “product” excludes most likely I imagine many of those we would probably be interested in finding; the suppression of finding out about health issues is valid I think given the inconclusive results of the testing. Especially if that information could be used to prevent me from being hired, or receiving insurance, or health care….American technology always seems to be two steps away from its eugenic past….

        Having said all that, I’ll add that I always randomly walk around cities; I use a desktop computer to publish stuff. All the same, I still have reservations about the value of DNA testing for someone like myself (not under 30; not of European descent; more likely to be in particular cross-hairs at this point in time based on what I’ve already done to “return” to a suspect place). I will do a sibling test, as this seems to give a quick and absolute (and absolutely life-changing) result.

        What I do love about it is the redefinition it affords you, away from the race “binary”, and the resulting research and narrative expansion that results from this. I’ve often said we should explore these “hidden” aspects of our identities! I’m curious how one might expand on this populist effort? Is there anything other than the company-provided discussion boards to help here? Perhaps this is a next step?

  2. That one needs to file a “petition” demonstrates that Power has stepped in to replace both morals and rational sense relative to infants and children. Upon having adulthood, “we” are supposed to have either “grown up” to accept our uncertain status, or to have “converted” to believing the system was established to further our best interests…

    Having appeared in state and federal courts at both the trial and appellate levels, I’ll play “the attorney card” here in stating, without equivocation, that legal systems are based upon mere beliefs, many of which are in line with what Mr. Bumble said about the law in “Oliver Twist”.

    “The law” is social policy, usually of an expedient nature, and it is enforced top-down and backed by a governmental monopoly on violence. That most codified laws deal with property interests should alarm everyone because it becomes ever-more apparent that “just” end results must be purchased…

    …and so, how do “we” continue our search when some search avenues clearly strengthen the system? I think we can only do what searching we can, when we can, and fully recognize that in relation to our particular circumstances, there will be no respite. At the same time, however, I believe the collective “we” must, in each our own way(s), confront each and every A-word myth/lie when we are able to do so.

    One of the biggest myths/lies surrounding the A-word is, I think, that it is “normal”. I shudder to while imagining the twisted minds that derive “normalcy” from pregnant women who may be poor and almost certainly having little power, infants and children truly orphaned by war, disease and accidental deaths, etc.

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

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