On radical psychology and adoption.


Elizabeth Catlett, Untitled, 1953

NOTE: This was originally a post at my blog; over the years I’ve gotten progressively more heartsick at the unending constant of adoptees in their nation-states of adoption trying to make sense of their trauma via the tools of the dominant culture in their country—the cultures that adopted us. We’ve been advocating our case for decades, and Things. Don’t. Change. In so many ways at this point this seem to me to be a losing battle. And I really bristle now when I hear of our “diagnoses”; the siting of an “illness” individually as being of us and not of the society that did this to us. This is also touched upon in the RAD post here concerning the alienation and resistance of adoptees [link].

One of the things I learned from living in my birth country for 12 years is how a majority of the population, through decades of trauma, and without the luxury or privilege to stop and salve wounds, perseveres. Much of this was due to the communal nature of living; the stress on the community over the individual, a kind of built-in safety net. When my family stateside would worry about me, I would jokingly tell them that it was impossible for me to be depressed in Beirut. If I didn’t head down to the corner in the evening to drink tea with neighbors and catch up on the day with everyone, the phone would start ringing, the door would be pounded, people would call up from the street…if I seemed down, I would be given space, or cajoled, or recited Qur’an—these were my prescriptions, and they worked.

I really miss this now, especially that I find myself in a place so 180 degrees different. The original is posted here intact with comments; if anything reads off it is for my own editing mistakes transferring it over. Titles are links that lead to full articles.

I’ve been lamenting (for want of a better term) the lack within the various domains that undergird adoption in no small way (social work, psychology, psychiatry, etc.) of any “radical” alternative for adoptees to follow to find some sense of mental and physical well-being. Many argue theoretically that this is a given of these areas of study, that they aid and abet dominant power structures, and thus offer no solace to an adoptee who understands implicitly the devastating contradictions of her dispossession, displacement, and/or disinheritance, and yet cannot find societal acknowledgment of her state of mind.

Over the years I’ve come across a variety of articles and papers online that speak to this topic in different ways. As always, I don’t believe in any kind of “unified theory” approach to anything; I do tend toward theory based in Marxist precepts, and I also lean on my own faith. And so I don’t think there’s much point in trying to write up an overarching synthesis of the material that follows. Instead, what I thought I might do is list them out, and describe why I consider them to perhaps be of benefit to those affected by adoption, who are seeking a more radical approach to dealing with and understanding their situation. I believe I have managed to find all the troublesome or broken links; please let me know if anything is not working for you.

1) Towards a Revolutionary Psychology
by Mihalis Mentinis

My title for this post comes from this first article, which takes a look at the Zapatista revolutionary endeavors in Mexico. It makes the case that individual “improvement” is inherently linked to communal improvement; we are not individuals living in bubbles:

The Zapatista psychology is not a theory of individual improvement; it stands in sharp contrast to psychotherapeutic ideas of self-development, self-actualisation, building of defences against the hostile outside, the strengthening of creativity and other skills and so on, so that one becomes a better fit to the neoliberal world of social atomisation and competition. This decision of a radical rupture is performed as a subjective precondition so that one joins a radical transformative project and engages in social and political change. Personal change and social change are indissolubly connected: one cannot happen without the other.

I relate this to the idea that the communal body in a normal situation takes up the responsibility for the well-being of the individuals that comprise it. In the abnormality that is capitalism community is destroyed; from there the more we atomize ourselves, the more vulnerable we are. Neo-liberalism has a ready army of third-party paid employees ready to take up the slack. It might be argued that their growing presence reflects a slow deterioration of the former role of community in seeing to the well-being of its members. Their treatments, in the big picture, can be seen as palliative bandaids on a terminal patient, that of society itself.

Further expansions: The Mexican revolutionary movement goes way back. I’ve been researching it in terms of historic artistic movements, such as the Taller de Grafica Popular. One of the artists I love from this movement is Elizabeth Catlett, a black American who moved to Mexico to escape the racism of her home country. She only passed away a few years ago. Other names to explore would include Leopoldo Mendez, as well as Diego Rivera. The latter’s murals, featuring scenes of American labor and worker resistance, can be found in many city’s old government buildings, for example in Detroit. Note: Detroit’s fate cannot be seen as separate from its radical history.

2) Existentialism and Existential Psychotherapy
by Emmy van Deurzen

I had my existential phase in college and after, as witnessed by the stacks of books I collected while working at the Strand Bookstore in New York, itself a pretty existential experience. I don’t ascribe to the philosophy itself, but I find it intriguing that the author connects philosophy to psychotherapy:

One would expect psychotherapists to have noted the central importance of philosophy to the practice of their own profession and draw on philosophy as a source for understanding their clients’ predicaments. Unfortunately this has not been the case.

The basic premise, that we are lone individuals who need to “get our act together” before being part of society I think puts the cart before the horse. I do appreciate here the thorough documentation of the various strains of existential thought. The article also points out the theoretical “remove” of various philosophies, and attempts to counter this with the “practice” of therapy itself, meaning, the discourse that it entails.

Further expansions: Philosophically speaking, I tend toward those who ascribe to a union of theory and practice, of thought and action. This moves us back to a unification of spirit, mind, and body all of which have been separated and parceled out as if they are not linked. Along these lines, the article doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge faith as a valid “philosophy”. Some of the most interesting work along these lines is happening within Liberation Theology movements, both Christian and Islamic. Some names to expand from here include: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Antonio Gramsci, Hamid Dabashi, Paulo Freire, Gustavo Gutiérrez, among many others.

3) Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It
credited to the Institute for Precarious Consciousness

In the previous article, an existential therapist would try to find a dialectical solution to the existential dilemma of being aware of the anxiety brought on by daily life. Missing here is an expanded awareness of the source of this anxiety. This article, though a bit reductive, does a good job of enumerating historic periods of “distress”—here, misery, boredom, and anxiety—to the economic and political underpinnings that lead to them, as well as the reaction of Capital to alleviate that distress in ways that only further its own goals, in an endless cycle:

Anxiety is personalised in a number of ways—from New Right discourses blaming the poor for poverty, to contemporary therapies which treat anxiety as a neurological imbalance or a dysfunctional thinking style. A hundred varieties of “management” discourse—time management, anger management, parental management, self-branding, gamification—offer anxious subjects an illusion of control in return for ever-greater conformity to the capitalist model of subjectivity. And many more discourses of scapegoating and criminalisation treat precarity as a matter of personal deviance, irresponsibility, or pathological self-exclusion.

Many of these discourses seek to maintain the superstructure of Fordism (nationalism, social integration) without its infrastructure (a national economy, welfare, jobs for all). Doctrines of individual responsibility are central to this backlash, reinforcing vulnerability and disposability. Then there’s the self-esteem industry, the massive outpouring of media telling people how to achieve success through positive thinking—as if the sources of anxiety and frustration are simply illusory. These are indicative of the tendency to privatise problems, both those relating to work, and those relating to psychology.

The solutions proposed in the article—especially those which advocate “the exercise of voice”—are particularly intriguing. For me they tie back into many early English and American social movements that linked together ideas of craft, artistic production, and the handmade; or which advocated for public, popular, and community/street theater and the like.

Further expansions: I remember during the ’90s when we were promised the digital revolution that would transform publishing, giving everyone a “voice”. At the same time, while a miniscule subset of the population took advantage of this, the entire infrastructure of public media was dismantled and done away with. A return here need focus on the most local; the most public (in terms of broadcast, distribution, etc.), and the handmade.

4) Angela Davis and Toni Morrison: Literacy, Libraries and Liberation
by Angela Davis and Toni Morrison

One such case in point is the Liberator magazine, with a print component and online counterpart. I was very intrigued by this interview/discussion between Angela Davis and Toni Morrison [Note: magazine is now defunct; link is to the original interview]:

The connective tissue here is the idea that each of us is, in varying degrees, caged by the wreckage of our past, and sometimes, our present. Literacy skills serve as invaluable tools as we clear away the rubble in order to make room for a future peppered with the possibility of rebirth. Angela Davis and Toni Morrison explore this notion in a conversation that is essentially a celebration of reading and writing. The dialogue, excerpted below, is one that occurs between old friends—they bonded when Morrison edited Davis’ autobiography, which was published in 1974—therefore, it lumbers along, sometimes taking scenic detours away from the main point. This fact, I suppose, is forgivable, given the heft of both the speakers and the content. Stick with the duo and you will find yourself glowing in the warmth generated by the sharing of ideas between intellectual allies, and privy to a fascinating exploration of literacy as a match capable of igniting recovery and redemption, and sparking resistance.

There is so much unsaid here that I think is important to bring forward. The importance of understanding histories of resistance in our own and other communities; the notion of “knowledge” as a possess-able, quantifiable, distibute-able, commodified entity; helping ourselves by helping others; the linking of the oral with written and archival traditions, etc. Most important perhaps is the idea of the systemic nature of our day-to-day, whether talking about a prison and its inmates, the town that survives based on its presence, the government who worked in collusion with corporate interests to establish it, and finally the racism, gender and sexual identification biases, as well as class warfare that support it all.

Further expansions: Toni Morrison is familiar to most; Angela Davis perhaps less. Also mentioned here are Frederick Douglass, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. All highly relevant today and highly recommended.

5) Good for Nothing
by Mark Fisher

Understanding “where we come from” thus becomes crucial in many ways. For the adoptee, it sets up a very particular contradiction. Raised as a “blank slate”, return often places the adoptee face-to-face with realities that are quite difficult to digest in terms of sense of self. This article speaks of this in personal terms:

On the urging of one of the readers of my book Capitalist Realism, I started to investigate the work of David Smail. Smail—a therapist, but one who makes the question of power central to his practice—confirmed the hypotheses about depression that I had stumbled towards. In his crucial book The Origins of Unhappiness, Smail describes how the marks of class are designed to be indelible. For those who from birth are taught to think of themselves as lesser, the acquisition of qualifications or wealth will seldom be sufficient to erase—either in their own minds or in the minds of others—the primordial sense of worthlessness that marks them so early in life. Someone who moves out of the social sphere they are ‘supposed’ to occupy is always in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror: “…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”

It seems to me there is something crucial here to our understanding of why reunion and rematriation often do not “work out”; this difference of class origin, which lies at the basis of adoption, raises its ugly head at an attempt to correct it, to fix it. Furthermore, a sense of our “origin” in this light perhaps plants the seed of the depression that so many adoptees seem destined to suffer with. The quoted connection to “place” seems very important along these lines.

Further expansions: Mentioned in the article are David Smail, and the book Capitalist Realism. It joins many other titles published over the decades; The Organization Man, published in the ’50s, comes to mind, with its elaboration of the myth of “pioneer entrepreneurialism” (still with us today) as just another kind of enslavement.

6) Devastated Vision(s): The Khmer Rouge Scopic Regime in Cambodia
by Boreth Ly

This article left me in tears, and still haunts me. So many of us come from countries of war, places of violence. I’ve often defended Lebanon in terms of this violence which is acknowledged as such only because it is overt, whereas the violences suffered in the “First World” as we have been discussing go unacknowledged for being blamed on their victims. At a certain point, however, this deflection breaks down, and we are left with the generational manifestation of these violences years, decades, later. And whereas we might know of the “official” recountings, the historical narratives, we are probably less aware of their occultation; their being hidden away from public knowledge.

And so Lebanon, still with no sense of reconciliation for the Civil War, and now with warlords in the Parliament and running for the presidency. The country still has no officially recognized history taught in schools. All of this is on the level of official power brokering, and doesn’t necessarily reach down to popular witnessing, say, which might find itself elaborated in a national reconciliation, as in South Africa. In the article cited here, however, we are dealing with a focused “blinding”, a willed destruction of witness. It got to me on one level because the Arabic word for “witness” and “martyr” is the same:

The devastation of vision among the victims of the Khmer Rouge contributed to the absence of visual representation of the genocide. The Legacy of Absence, an exhibition organized by Ingrid Muan and Daravuth Lyfor the Reyum Gallery in Phnom Penh in 2000, included paintings by Cambodian artists who drew on their knowledge and experience of the genocide. The works in the show included both abstract and figurative paintings that depict the Cambodian social and economic reality, crippled by the Khmer Rouge legacy. For instance, Tum Saren’s The Wait of the Orphans to Pick Up Scraps of Food (1999) depicts four orphans begging for food in rural Cambodia. According to the artist, the painting wishes to show clearly that war leads only to destruction and despair. The countryside ordinarily is a place where people farm, thus growing things that fulfill their needs. These orphans, however, have no such place, nor a family or a caring society to solve their famine problem.

How do you witness what is literally not witness-able? I will not render trite the beauty of this piece by dissecting it. In and of itself, in following a musical “structure” in terms of its own form, it evokes an astounding grace that rises above its devastating contents, which themselves speak of “expression” in very particularly elegant terms. I would compare it to the memorial pagoda featured at the end of the article, with piles of skulls which “stare hauntingly back at the survivors and the killers”: a kind of confrontation that leaves no escape.

As I’ve heard recounted stories of war in Lebanon, of the exodus of Palestinians and their plight in the camps, of the current war in neighboring Syria, of the July War in 2006 (which I also experienced), I sometimes imagine what kind of reconciliation might ever hope to undo such psychological damage. As is being taken up in the camps, there are currently many projects I am aware of which aim to document “witnessing” of those generations which are in the latter stretch of their days. These end up housed in museums, or online, yet nonetheless all voices are grouped in one place.

And it strikes me that as a vast diverse group of individuals—adoptees, mothers, families, and communities—we have been attempting something similar. We document, we publish, we blog; we conference, we gather, we rematriate. Yet somehow our voices are still separate; separated. Do we ever reach a point of saturation here? A place of “moving on”? I recently went to update links at my web site of blogs related to adoption, and was distressed to see that many of them had ceased publishing. At first I thought the worst, that like me, writers had not found “witnessing” cathartic. Now I’m wondering if instead they stand as “memorials” of sorts? Can I hope that the authors have processed and moved forward?

Here I’m left with more questions than answers. Compared to many I know, my luxury and privilege to go on about this becomes very apparent to me. How to 1) convey to someone who does not have this luxury or privilege the benefit of “opening up”, to witness, to reconcile? Or, 2) how to learn from them how to process what seems to us impossible to process, and move forward?

Further expansions: Much of what I find heartening in all of this is popular/unmediated forms of art, music, theater, literature, and poetry. Given their presence here where I am now, and their absence now in the place of my acculturation, I feel a kind of immunity to the depression that dogged me my whole life there, and a dread when I must go back. This might present another avenue to explore: Popular and communal forms of expression (dialogue); as opposed to individual manifestations (monologues), that do not “speak” on the same level, which consider creator and audience to be of separate realms.

7) Frantz Fanon’s Enduring Relevance
by Ama Biney

Much of what we’ve discussed this far focuses on the difference between seeing ourselves as lone individuals and being aware that we are part of bigger systems at play. Most relevant to this discussion (still, as the title conveys) is Frantz Fanon. Himself a French-trained psychologist, Fanon speaks of the trauma of the “colonized” in terms of defiance and dependence:

What is problematic is that the cycle of psychological dependency remains in such structures and relationships i.e. between Africa and the North, donor and recipient/user. Fundamentally, the majority of the NGOs in Africa are engaged in the provision of services that is the responsibility of the African state to provide for their people i.e. clean water, healthcare, education etc. It is similar with so-called aid that has been pumped into African societies since independence. A proportion of this aid is allocated to pay African civil servants who have not been paid by their governments but are paid by Northern governments in the form of ‘budgetary assistance’ in all forms of complex loan arrangements hidden from the scrutiny of the people. The wretched of the earth receive the crumbs from such aid packages which never radically transform their day to day existence.

What I have gleaned most from Fanon is the rejection of the idea that issues relating to my adoption are a function of me, deserving of individual therapy to “cure”. I know see most if not all of these “treatments”—such as those for children supposedly diagnosed with RAD, culture camps, and “self-help” therapies, etc.—to not only wholly miss the point, but to exacerbate the damage of the original “wound”. Is it any coincidence that most of the epithets that we receive from those not happy with our activism center on accusations of psychological illness? Fanon teaches us, on the contrary, that if there is a wound, there is an assailant. And the wounded and the assailant are both in need of succor along psychological lines.

This brings us to a “next step”: An awareness of the systemic nature of our adoption and a disallowing of this individualistic projection onto others involved. I say this as an adoptee rematriated but not completely reunited. I’ve heard so many stories of reunions that “turn bad”, or which don’t happen from the get-go. I’ve seen documented stories of rematriation or possible return which are haunted by differences in expectations; emotional projections. I am petrified to take this next step in searching, so much this bothers me. It seems at some point we need admit that reunion is work; not of one, or two, but of many. And that the imbalances between classes and groups of people, the variety of wounds, scars, and healings involved, and the complexity of narrative here all require a rethinking of how this is even approached. (Update: I’m now in reunion with extended family; my five half-siblings believe I am after their inheritance and refuse contact.)

It doesn’t help certainly that there is little in the way of post-adoption support; that parents are often not vetted prior to adoption; that adoptees turn to profiteers such as private investigators who are not proper intermediaries; etc. This is where Fanon’s proposal of a union of force of adopter, adoptee, mother, family, community going up against the systems themselves which displace, dispossess, and/or disinherit might be most positive.

Further expansions: Frantz Fanon’s works are seminal in this regard. They’ve been greatly expanded upon by scholars such as Nigel Gibson.

8) Marxism and class, gender, and race: Rethinking the trilogy
by Dr. Martha E. Gimenez

In the decade since I returned to Lebanon, and similar to many adoptees whether they rematriate or not, I have been struggling with notions of identity, as witnessed here. One of the major issues for me is the growing dissonance I experience when I try to engage along these lines with those acculturated in the U.S. I’m old enough to have witnessed the eclipsing of liberation ideologies by the various schools of post-modernism, which seem—seem—to have taken up the torch. I no longer believe this to be the case.

I’ve been disturbed first by the dis-integrative self-labeling of ethnic studies and the like, and later (and most recently) by the privilege maintained by those who nonetheless decry privilege, often to an audience of those who have the luxury and privilege to so engage, usually via hashtag wars on Twitter. This all enters the media maelstrom, and is forgotten the next day. I do not believe that this is coincidence:

To argue, then, that class is fundamental is not to “reduce” gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and “nameless” power at the root of what happens in social interactions grounded in “intersectionality” is class power.

I might take this one step further and say that the discussion of intersectionality is allowed as such because those discussing it are primarily of similar class interest. By this I mean to say they class-identify as a unit, and so “class” becomes a cipher; the elephant in the room gone invisible. Why am I even bringing this up? Because the article speaks of identity in ways which are crucial to understanding our own place. For there is a “reduction to the absurd” that takes place in such strictly categorized and exclusive discussions which forefront particular groups.

In opposition to those “oppressing” (by virtue of their identity, not their power position) such groups seem to form a united front. Yet minus that oppression, they disintegrate, along recursively similar lines that many of us have experienced. For me in Lebanon, this was hearing that “darker babies” went to America. Similarly, a Korean adoptee (from the south of South Korea) related the issues she had as a “darker” Korean in Seoul. Lebanon breaks down into hierarchies of sect, political alignment, social clout, etc. Eventually the atomization is complete. We must acknowledge the complexity and overlap here.

I call such discussions I see online “running the hamster wheel”. Not only do they not challenge power, they waste energy, and eventually serve a systemic function of literally running us in circles, first in their event stage, and then in their mediation. Theoretical phrases are dropped like coded keys of admittance to a private club. It becomes more and more evident that if an oppressive system allows certain schools of thought to form, exist, and thrive, it is either because 1) they serve functionally speaking the very maintaining of that system, or 2) the system is so immunized against them that they serve no threat. The barking dog is tolerated; the biting dog is put down.

Further expansions: Richard Ohmann’s The Politics of Knowledge comes readily to mind.

9) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism
by David Harvey

Recently, former Lebanese labor minister Charbel Nahas gave a lecture at a symposium celebrating Hassan Hamdan, aka “Mahdi Amel”, often referred to as the “Arab Gramsci”. In reply to a question asking what the “solution” was to our current crisis, he replied: “To ask about a solution is to say that there is a problem. There isn’t a ‘problem’, there is a system.” The implication here should be readily apparent to us. We can attempt to “carve out” spaces of tranquility for ourselves, but the energy to do so requires us to tune out and zone out everything that contradicts it. This takes us back to the “boredom solution” proposed in a previous article, the endless diversions supplied by Capital, our modern-day “bread and circuses”. Minus the bread.

As discussed, one half of the battle is systemic. I am the first to admit this is not easy. Nor is it without repercussions: loss of job, livelihood, being targeted for silencing, etc. I want to put forward the idea that even if action along these lines takes a decade of one’s life to approach or put in practice; even if one cannot even imagine calling into question the status quo in any meaningful physical way, the switch to seeing it and acknowledging it (referred to as the “click” in a preceding reference) mentally changes one’s outlook in a positive way. This switch, when applied to all of one’s own social relationships, progressively grows from there:

Unalienated human beings and unalienated creative personas emerge armed with a new and confident sense of self and collective being. Born out of the experience of freely contracted intimate social relations and empathy for different modes of living and producing, a world will emerge where everyone is considered equally worthy of dignity and respect, even as conflict rages over the appropriate definition of the good life. This social world will continuously evolve through permanent and ongoing revolutions in human capacities and powers. The perpetual search for novelty continues.…None of these mandates, it goes without saying, transcends or supersedes the importance of waging war against all other forms of discrimination, oppression and violent repression within capitalism as a whole. By the same token, none of these other struggles should transcend or supersede that against capital and its contradictions. Alliances of interests are clearly needed.

Again we come back to an expansion of alliances. This does not mean the strict delineation of intersectional “allies”; this means finding common cause; focusing on the similar and not the different.

Further expansions: David Harvey’s works are highly recommended; also Samir Amin and Ellen Meiksins Wood, among many others.

addendum a) Akbar Papers in African Psychology
I found this link in the feed of Akata Leader One on Twitter. It is a chapter from the book by Na‘im Akbar, Akbar Papers in African Psychology entitled “Mental Disorders of African Americans”. The author’s research is derived from the days of the Black Power movement, and coincides with his officiating in the Nation of Islam:

Until African Americans are able to effectively define what is normal for our communities, we remain as subjects to an alien authority. Until we recognize the forces that operate to alienate us from ourselves, we will continue to lose our mental power and collaborate with anti-community forces. The definition of normality and abnormality is one of the most powerful indications of community power. So long as these definitions come from outside of the community, the community has no ability to grow nor can human beings within theose communities realize the full power of their human potential.

There is much to digest here, but I appreciate most the focus on community (moving us away from the dominant culture’s focus on individuality); the impact of a pathological society in forming “pathologies” within those oppressed which then are used as arguments for further oppression; the references again to Frantz Fanon and his ideas of colonization and its effects on those subjugated.

Further expansions: Readings from members of the Black Panthers, especially Emory Douglas in terms of art as a venue for resistance; Malcolm X; Stokely Carmichael; Angela Davis; Paul Robeson; etc.

addendum b) Critical Discomfort and Deep Engagement Needed for Transformation

I refound this in a pile of research I was going through recently. I imagine I had originally downloaded it when researching notions of consensus while we were putting together the charter and bylaws that go along with the manifesto listed above. I am particularly struck by this quotation:

In our own practice in the Urban Education and Social Justice cohort at the University of San Francisco, noted critical educator Camangian regularly leads the class through a reflection on the safe-space narrative. It is important, he argues, to replace safe space with critical discomfort, to allow contradictions and tensions to drive the discussion forward rather than smoothing them over. This is, then, a discussion that is probably happening in many such courses.

I also love that it contains this quote from James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name:

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

More and more I am finding the language of this kind of safety zone, this “safe space”-ness, to be intensely disturbing, especially when it comes from so-called progressives, or other adoptees. We all know the conversation stoppers: “It’s complicated”; “you’re entitled to your opinion”; “as a[n] [identity marker], I…”; “I’m really triggered by that”; “you can’t change people by fighting them”; “let’s agree to disagree then”; etc.

I remember when we were setting up the logistics for the March of Return to the Palestinian Border. Various groups from Palestinian and Lebanese civil society came together to discuss how work would be shared. The meetings took place around a long table, which grew as people joined in. No one sat behind anyone else, and the person speaking held the floor. It took days, but there was an initial clearing the air as people spoke of grievances and injury.

Because everyone believed in the long-term goal of the project, and there was a sense that our discussion would not lead to dissolution, then this air-clearing was quite therapeutic. I contrast this with a kind of individualistic mentality that harbors fears of altercation because the initial given understood state of affairs is quite the opposite: namely, division, separate ways, one-way communication.

So much of Anglo discourse is governed by this strange hegemony of equivocating linguistics (the sentence-beginning “Well…”, the sentence-ending question-signifying rising intonation, the subjunctive tone, etc.) that I am ever grateful for having known more straightforward “alternatives”, both in New Jersey and Lebanon (which are very similar in many ways, but that’s a whole other post).

Worse, the only recourse to this kind of discourse is a reductive retreat into the realm of the like-minded. This results in rules of banishment, lessons on proper locution, correct isms/frameworks/worldviews, etc. Logically concluded, the result is hierarchies, categories, power differentials, and everything else that likely started the dialogue in the first place. This is worthy of cliques in high school, and not much else.

Further expansions: Linguistics from a perspective of communal engagement and not individual utterance is required here. I recommend A Marxist Philosophy of Language by Jean-Jacques Lecercle. The article from Ayers has some excellent references as well.

addendum c) A Non-Occidentalist West?

I’ve been working on my fellowship, looking into concepts of citizenship, belonging, identity, etc. I stumbled upon a reading which sums up in so many ways much of what I go on about on my blogs and elsewhere, while also providing a sense of carry-through or praxis. Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes eloquently on escaping the dilemma of moving beyond the system that one finds oneself trapped within. He defines the reductive thinking of “Western” science that will only examine problems or issues that it knows it already has an answer to (this comes up in certain adoptee circles which refuse anything which is “not in the literature”, whatever that means). He beautifully describes our current dis-ease:

This lack does not allow us to identify, let alone, define, the true dimension of the problems afflicting the epoch. The latter appear as a set of contradictory feelings: exhaustion which does not conceal lack; unease which does not conceal injustice; anger which does not exclude hope. Exhaustion results from incessant victory indoctrination where citizens endowed with the simple lights of life see only defeat, [are indoctrinated with] solutions where they see problems, expert truths where they see interests, consensuses where they see resignation. Unease derives from the increasingly more apparent absence of reasonableness from the rationality proclaimed by orthopedic thinking, an injustice-producing machine that sells itself as a machine of happiness. Anger emerges at social regulation disguised as social emancipation, individual autonomy used to justify neoslavery servitude, the reiterated proclamation of the impossibility of a better world to silence the idea, very genuine if diffuse, that humanity and nature both are entitled to something much better than the current status quo. The masters of orthopedic thinking take advantage of exhaustion to turn it into total fulfillment: the end of history (Fukuyama, 1992). As to unease and anger, they are ‘treated’ with medical prostheses, the anesthesia of consumption and the vertigo of the entertainment industry. None of these mechanisms, however, seems to function in such a way as successfully to disguise, by functioning efficaciously, the abyssal dysfunction from which its necessity and efficacy stem..

He follows up with practical activisms that challenge this dystopic realm at each turn, examples that are overlooked within the dominant discourse, as well as emphasizing “linking” or “bridging” with the like-minded. A beautiful read.

A conclusion is perhaps warranted after all of this barely tying things together with the weakest of twine. I offer these up not as definitive treatises or absolute paths to follow. I don’t state that I absolutely agree with everything listed here. I could continue this list forever, and this is a project I hope to work on more this summer. But more on that when the time comes.

I’ve spent many years fielding questions from mothers, adoptive parents, adoptees, and others who are often at the end of their rope in terms of dealing with the impact of adoption on their lives. I’m not denying the role of, say, therapy in helping us understand and cope with our situations. But I ask: Are there therapies which focus out and not in? If not, why not? What does it mean when a friend tells me they were “fired” by their therapist who thought she gave too much weight to her adoption? On the contrary, I’m trying to expand out from here, given what we might know or come to know about our individual selves, how does that relate to the bigger world around us? How do we relate with each other?

For example the notion of “existential therapy” might be beneficial in helping someone place themselves in a worldview that allows them to navigate daily life and deal with life’s challenges. At the same time, an expansion here—if we say instead that philosophy is important to return to and can be therapeutic—then we’re not locked into one particular way of seeing things. I have a notebook, for example, that I write thoughts down in from such sources, ranging from Ludwig Wittgenstein to the Qur’an and back again. I constantly make links, instead of limiting myself to “one way” of seeing the world. For this I appreciate the Marxist critique here of intersectional theory, for it asks: Where do these connect? What has been overlooked? How do we move forward from here?

This “moving forward” becomes key. More important is escaping the “one way of looking at things” which we are acculturated to just accept as the status quo, with us playing our roles within that. How do we change perspectives? How do we avoid stasis, avoid running the “hamster wheel”? How can we best understand the systemic nature of our collective angst? Once we remove the personal and the individual, how can we connect, reconnect, socially interact in a way that is holistic and sustaining? How can we avoid on the individual level in terms of our relationships with others what is considered oppressive when observed systemically? This doesn’t mean only the negative “calling out” of perceived slights, but requires the positive implementation of acts of social adhesion.

One of the “rules” I’ve created for myself along these lines is to ever focus on the local, as well as on the overlooked. By this I mean to say if it is “allowed” by the dominant discourse, then it is probably toothless and Pabulum, but further probably hides something else much more important to pursue. Here is where I recommend to seen-as white adoptees/APs to research the resistant cultural strains within their ethnic makeup for possible ways out of how they perceive themselves and their distress concerning notions of identity (for example, Irish resistance to Anglo-Saxon norms). It’s also important for those of us adopted internationally to understand the history of social movements in our places of origin, as well as in our place of acculturation.

Of course, this selection of readings ranges from simpler musings to dense academic treatises. I might suggest reading here and there, and just seeing where they might lead. Many of them have bibliographies for further reading, and I’ve suggested expansive topic points as well. I would like to thank the many mothers, adoptees, adoptive parents, and others within the adoption realm for engaging with me in conversations that sometimes left me frustrated in terms of how to reply to often desperate situations, or else hard put to pull up references and readings. This back and forth has been incredibly useful for me as I make my way down similar paths, and I hope in turn this might be of some use as well. As such, I would like to call this a collective effort, and I am ever grateful for this growing community.

Finally, I welcome additions, comments, answers, criticisms, testimonies, rants, ravings, or anything that anyone has found useful for themselves and/or for others. I’d love to hear from those in academia for social work, pschology, therapy, etc. with any radical alternatives they were presented with or were blocked trying to bring to the academic realm or to their work environment. I look forward to a time when we need not discuss issues concerning our mental well-being in this manner. Until then, peace and blessings.

23 thoughts on “On radical psychology and adoption.

  1. I find your dialectic regularly engaging and thought-provoking, and this essay really challenged me to question my own beliefs in a new way, so a successful lesson on your part. I derive tremendous comfort from the existential process as well, and find it woefully lacking in the vast majority of adoption-related text currently available, especially with respect to activism and social change. I very much appreciate your writing, and look forward to reading more in the future. Thank you!

    • I appreciate that, thanks. Philosophically speaking, I think it fair to summarize its history by saying we’ve moved through a variety of stages of separation. God from humankind; humans from nature; lone individual from society; mind from body; language from mind. As is typical within capitalist discourses, this is seen as progress always, with another stage always awaiting beyond that. This is why the cyber-ization of everything is hailed regularly as our “next great leap” of consciousness. Frankly I see it all as hugely regressive and reductive, every step of the way. I find comfort in history, and voices unheard. I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but like we see in the discussion of Morrison and Davis, the search for this self-awareness via such a path will not be for nothing.

  2. Excellent addendum, extremely harmonious with adoption paradigms, especially in terms of identity and pathology. I have often found myself in conversation with fellow adoptees who have self-identified in a manner consistent with one of the author’s 4 ‘classifications of disorder’ and my intuitive reaction is always “perhaps you’re simply reacting naturally to a unnatural set of circumstances.” It is disconcerting that an individual would allow themselves to be negated outright from the standpoint of wanting to be accepted at any cost, yet remain unaware that this acceptance holds a societal consequence. Great food for thought, thanks for another compelling perspective.

    • Thanks Mark. You’ve put your finger on it exactly. It really pains me to hear fellow adoptees label themselves, as much as it really makes me angry when we “get labeled”, especially with RAD (see link at Transracial Eyes), for just one example. It’s difficult, for example, because I can understand being drawn toward, say, The Primal Wound. I can find myself agreeing with a lot of theoretical explanations as to the “why” we might be suffering through x, y, or z. What is starkly missing is anything that allows us to escape being seen as broken, disturbed, or ill. Thanks for your kind words.

  3. From @VersoBooks and Étienne Balibar: “Certainly, it tells us that our society is ill – but what society isn’t? I believe that it is important to begin by freeing ourselves of any idealist images, by understanding that it is utopian to imagine a society without any pathologies. But utopias do have a role: they allow us to imagine alternatives and ways of cracking down on unbearable forms of exploitation, domination or hatred.”

    A reversal here supplies the tactic we’ve been discussing: Blaming the sickness on society, not ourselves….

    • “Perhaps you’re simply reacting naturally to a unnatural set of circumstances.”
      Been saying that for years.
      But with 96 % of all the research of social sciences being conducted on “WEIRD” subjects, setting the standards for what is “normal human behaviour”.. nobody believes me. Or at least, they think ‘that’s just MY perspective’ (which can never prove anything).

      WEIRD is an acronym, here’s some discussion about the issue: http://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/10/we-agree-its-weird-but-is-it-weird-enough/

  4. I read the following article some time ago: http://www.salon.com/2014/03/02/the_psychology_of_hate_how_we_deny_human_beings_their_humanity/
    It argues that “When people around the planet demand human rights or claim they have been treated inhumanely, the central issue is their oppressors’ failure to recognize their mind.”. No focus on community or society but on the personhood of the (other) person.
    After reading many of your writings here, which very much resonate with me, I wonder what you think of the ideas in this article and the premises they seem to be based on. If it’s not asking too much, could you address this?

    • I’m late coming to this, so apologies! Striking to me here is the placing of examples in the historical past, and the use of “non-combative” examples. Meaning, to choose MLK over the Black Panthers or Malcolm X seems to do exactly what the article decries, except in terms of what we might call “physical manifestation of anger”. Leonard Peltier did a similar thing during his hearing decades ago, for another example. Except he was charged with killing FBI agents. Why these toothless examples?

      Focusing on the mind as if it is separate from the body is a function of the same Greek roots of so-called modern liberalism that also gave us the separation of the politically invested citizen from those who barely exist as entities within society. Using a sympathetic judge as a synechdoche for “Western” society implies that “humanity” is just a given in our culture. I would argue the exact opposite.

  5. Marxism & Psychology: “This 2015 issue of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology (ARCP 12) is compiled from papers originally presented at the Second Conference of Marxism and Psychology held in Morelia, Mexico, from 9-11 August 2012. The global crisis continues, and it is more urgent than ever to explore issues that emerge at the intersection of Marxist scholarship and psychological practice.”


  6. Very interesting discussion. Coming at this as an adopted person and Episcopal priest, as well as person pushing the boundaries of conventional theological discourse, am engaged by the idea of radical psychology and the wounding of humanity in and through capitalist society. Theology and theosophy can offer another link. Not attempting that here and now, lol.

    • You’re absolutely right Mark, and I absolutely welcome additions along these lines. I’ve been researching liberation theologies (Christian and Islamic) for a long time now, and am very much taken with their focus on what are the day-to-day realities of much of the planet, and those who don’t have the luxury and privilege to “stand/move away” from notions of faith. When my family was worried about me while I was living in Lebanon, I used to joke with them saying that it was impossible for me to be depressed in Beirut—this was functional to the communal aspects of my lived Muslim reality there; I was never alone basically. Now that I’m in a place radically different from that, I miss those connections, and worry about my own mental state again, sadly. If I avoided such philosophical aspects in this collection I guess it is because of erring in thinking that this was more along lines of the personal (as opposed to the economic and political), when as you say, these aspects can be examined from a critical and philosophical viewpoint. Thank you for the reminder! Much appreciated.

      • Hi Daniel,

        Looking autobiographically the main question facing me was what is this world in which I am placed – who are these people and what do they think and understand? That was not how I framed it from the beginning. That came later.

        The first task – and central task – was to learn and that required some degree of trust. Trust either happens or not in an encounter. It looks like acceptance. These encounters are bread crumbs. So, I followed the bread crumbs – which is a mythic way – to the center of the forest – which is the reality of the world. It is the place where there is abundant growth and untended life.

        The bread crumbs are more like clues on the path in Grimm’s fables. They lead somewhere and are dropped by someone. But they are also the bread of life. This is all metaphor but the words point to a reality. I had to know where I was and whether it was true. And I needed food and water. Air and warmth. I needed the earth. Solid ground. But I didn’t know that to begin with. I knew only what I was given and took that for granted. It was in what I was given that I found a start and bound up with that original gift was loss. It was a loss I was not conscious of.

        So, following the path in the world I was given – and being someone who wanted to live – in part because there is penetrating beauty – I trusted many encounters very deliberately, but not all. I think radical trust – deliberate listening and acceptance – is a form of radical psychology – radical soul-work. It is a form of love.

        There is, on the other hand, the turning away and turning from. That is also radical psychology. What I turned from was related to feelings – usually negative ones like fear or anxiety. Nothing is closer to the soul than feeling.

      • Thanks for this Mark, I’ve been coming back to it a few times before replying, and correct me if I am misconstruing anything. All of the points here as well as your great metaphors speak of a “break”, or a point when and where we know or are made to know that there is a source somewhere. That moment when the “fog lifts”, so to speak. How did that work for you? So many adoptees (going back to the reason I started collecting these references) seek solace within the adoptive culture, without realizing there is that source; or as you point out, it looms a bit “wild” and scary to them, so they avoid it. Was it functional to faith for you? Or something else?

  7. “The radical psychology movement was an attack on institutionalized psychology—which isolated mental illness within the individual. They wanted to place psychology and psychiatry within a social framework and attempted to expose the external structures of society that caused mental illness, rather than blaming the internal structures of the individual. One of Phil Brown’s workshops considered “the revolution as therapy,” as well as looking into “the psychology of racism and male supremacy.” Together with Phil and Keith we will use these activities to shine light on the situation of mental health and care today.”


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

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s