Thursday, May 28, 2009

Adoptees at the Movies - AAC 2001

23rd Annual American Adoption Congress Conference
2001 An Adoption Odyssey – Mission Possible

Anaheim, California
19 April 2001

Adoptees at the Movies
Father Tom Brosnan/ Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao/ Penny Callan Partridge

Last year I saw a little known film that received far too little coverage -- a Japanese film called After Life. Although it was directed by a Japanese of Buddhist background, it had many Catholic sensibilities. To me, as a Catholic theologian, After Life was a movie about what Catholic theology used to call the Four Last Things: Death, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. It opens with recently deceased people arriving at an old abandoned school building and meeting with a team of helpers whose task it is over the course of a few days to help the dead person remember the happiest moment in his life. They then take that memory and make it into a movie. The dead person then views the film and takes his happiest moment with him into eternity. Movie-makers are magicians -- as Ingmar Bergman said, they’re conjurers. And we’re here today to bring you a little closer to heaven.

In October last year The Society for Myth and Tradition launched its First Film and Video Festival under the banner Cinema of the Spirit. Stephen Schiff, film critic for the New Yorker, offered a few thoughts as an introduction toward a Cinema of the Spirit.

Schiff said that a “Cinema of the Spirit is an art that beckons toward search, possessing a thirst for transformation. Such a thing happens,” Schiff said, “when you’re watching a movie and you are inexplicably touched by it. A kind of luminosity that shines through a character’s eyes or through the cleverness of a camera angle. Film is incomparably forceful, so forceful that it can deliver a potent idea very deeply into our structure, or so vigorously dislodge us from who we think we are that we’re thrown back upon search itself.”

One of the characters in After Life was a luminosity to me. She was a sweet lady, elderly but exuding a childlike innocence. She sits before the team who are to help her discover her happiest memory that she would take with her into eternity. She finds it quite quickly. “She had never married,” she told them. An unusual situation for a Japanese woman of her age. She had lived with her unmarried brother all her life. He had already died and she missed him terribly. Her happiest memory she tells them was when she was a child – the day her brother gave her a red dress for her to wear while take dancing lessons. Recalling that day her smile was exquisite, her eyes so youthful and gleaming. So convincing was her manner that the viewer wondered if it were her real memory, in real life. Then, to discover, that the director did not use professional actors. There were no written scripts. It could well have been this woman’s happiest memory and she made it eternal with the way she expressed it. Conjured or lived, virtual or not, it was indubitably true.

The scene touched me deeply because of the woman’s loveliness, but I think also because it was wrapped in the bittersweet context of loss and happiness, of family and lack of family. She had been a sister but not a wife. She was no widow, but suffered a widow’s loss. She had no children to comfort her in old age, yet she was delightfully joyful when recalling the memory of that red dress was mystical in its healing power.

I think adoption does that to us: choices are made for us that can bring us joy, but always mixed with a sorrow -- regret for what might have been. In Mike Lee’s Secrets and Lies the brother to Cynthia is suffering the effects of infertility with his wife. At one especially poignant moment in the film, trying to comfort his wife, he says “you know, you really can miss what you’ve never had.” This truth seems to me to permeate the adoption experience, touching each member of the triad from his own particular perspective: the infertile couple planning to adopt always do so as a second choice, missing their fantasy child. The birth parents missing what they relinquished; and the adoptee missing his birth family, his birth name, his heritage.

The following films have offered me a certain luminosity over the years, allowing me to experience those feelings vicariously as it were, through the medium of film, the conjurer’s art that heals on some inner plane. Von Balthasar, the great theologian of the past century would redefine religion as “the reuniting of previously separated parts.” Movies can do that for us in a way, by exposing what pains us – although we vicariously experience the actor’s pain or joy, we actually enter into it when we allow the emotion to enable us to see that we have suffered the same pain. Movies move us to remember so that we might heal.

Loss and reunion themes in movies do that for me. Remember that old classic, Come
Back Little Sheba, with Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster? Burt Lancaster is Doc, a recovering alcoholic married to Shirley Booth, Lola. They are childless. Everyday Lola goes out on the front porch and calls for her missing dog Little Sheba, but the dog never comes. Meanwhile a young coed rents a room in their house, reminding Lola and Doc of the child that was either miscarried or relinquished. Also reminding Doc of other things and he ends up drinking again. In a drunken rage he calls the young coed a slut and a tramp, “just like Lola,” he says. We get the idea that Doc had to marry Lola – though there is no child.

I first saw Come Back Little Sheba when I was 14 years old on a New Year’s Eve alone at home. I couldn’t stop sobbing though I didn’t consciously know why – mourning my own lost Little Shebas which I couldn’t yet name or identify. It was one of the best and most memorable New Years’ Eves I ever had.

Another scene from a more recent movie about loss and reunion: Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. In this plot a young British boy is separated from his parents while living in Shanghai at the outbreak of WWII. He spends the war in a Japanese POW camp. It’s a coming-of-age story but some deeper strands touch on issues surrounding loss and to my mind extraordinary montage of recognition at the very end of the movie. After the war has ended British children are brought together in order to be reclaimed, so to speak, by parents who feared them dead. The boy in Empire of the Sun is placed in the middle of a group of other separated children and the eager parents are released to find their children. He is obviously traumatized. He stares straight ahead, he never blinks. The camera focuses on his face and eyes. His father passes him by, not recognizing him after four years. Then his mother passes him, but returns. She calls his name, but he makes no response, just stares ahead. She studies his features and knows, as only a mother can, this is her son. She embraces him, clutching him as the camera explores the boy’s unmoved eyes -- always the eyes. Finally his brow unfurrows and he begins to blink and then the eyes peacefully close. He is home again at his mother’s breast. At last, he is at rest.

This one scene reminds me of many things. It reminds me of how exhausted I felt when I did my search and how, even now, some fifteen years later, I have managed to procrastinate tying up loose ends concerning my birth father. Perhaps I dread the emotional drain that would leave me catatonic. I see Monica Byrne is here from Canada and maybe she’ll spur me on to bring closure to this Canadian connection.

The scene also clarified something that always bothered me about what people pray at funerals. They say: Eternal rest grant unto them – meaning the dead. Maybe heaven is a rest of sorts when the odyssey is over and you can rest assured in someone’s loving embrace.

Here’s an example of what one seemingly simple scene does for me. In one of my favorite movies of all times [I have so many favorite movies of all times] but Cinema Paradiso is definitely one of them. It’s the story of a small boy in a Sicilian village. His father dies in the war and he finds a father in the projectionist at the town cinema. It’s about many things, this movie, but a lot of it is about leaving home and returning -- about loss and reunion. The boy grows into a young man and is about to go to Rome to find himself. The projectionist, now blind, has the last word with him on the train platform. He grabs him and pulls his ear close to his mouth. “Leave here,” the old man who loves him so much tells him. “And don’t ever come back.” He does just that, becoming a famous movie director. He supports his mother through the years, but never returns though it would have been very easy to do so. The old projectionist eventually dies and his mother calls her son to tell him. His sister says why bother, you know he’ll never come. “For him,” his mother says referring to the old movie projectionist, “He’ll come.” The next scene is what gets to me. The camera is focused on the mother sitting in a rocking chair, crocheting. The camera slowly zooms in on just her hands and the rhythm of the movement of back and forth over and around. We hear in the background a car pull up to the front of the house, the hands stop moving, the door to the car slams shut the mother stands and begins to run to the door but a piece of the yarn is caught on her dress and the camera continues to focus on the unraveling thread from the spindle. And then, suddenly, it stops and we know without seeing it actually happen, without hearing a word spoken, that mother and son have embraced after many, many years apart.

Why is it that it still makes me cry, even writing about it? Mother – son reunited, perhaps. Or the idea of coming home after an adventure. Dorothy returning to Kansas after Oz: There’s no place like home. Is it the fact that we know he’s returning essentially for his unofficial adoptive father, not for his mother who has always been jealous of the old projectionist. Is it the spinning, the unraveling, the idea that life is a tapestry of sorts which doesn’t make sense until finished?

There are subliminal themes of profound import in this one scene, I believe. Did you know that the Old German word for fate is “wurt” meaning spindle? Our word “spider” comes from the Old English “spinthron,” meaning the spinner. Boethius in Late Antiquity wrote that God turns “heaven like a spindle.” The Virgin Mary is often pictured spinning as the archangel Gabriel comes to her to announce the extraordinary event that she has conceived divinity in her womb. Sleeping Beauty received the prediction that she would die at 16 when she would prick her finger while spinning. Some say that the fate that was thought of by the ancients as spun has now turned into the wheel of fortune where we take our chance with destiny. We cast off fate in order to make ourselves new. Leaving home is a casting off, a re-creation, an escape from social class and destiny – we become spiders spinning our own webs. If you think that these archetypes of consciousness are lost to us today think again every time you go on line into the World Wide Web.

While speaking of destiny or fate we might venture into the realm of religion and faith for a moment. It’s been my experience that many involved in the adoption triad claim religious right in their points of view and often claim to know with certainty that it was God’s Will that such and such happened, sort of like both sides in a war claiming that God’s on their side. It’s been my experience that Carl Jung’s observation about organized religion applies here. “Religion,” Jung said,” often protects us from an encounter with the divine.” In other words religion often does the opposite of what you might expect it to do. God or God’s will might be too goddamned scary to handle, so religion protects us from it. Unfortunately religion has had to lie about some things in order to do that. St. Augustine would say that there are many kinds of lies, but when done in the name of religion it is especially despicable. I’m thinking here of the little known documentary from about three years ago called My Brother, My Sister Sold for a Fistful of Lire. It is the story of an elderly Italian woman trying to find the siblings taken from her parents immediately after the war when families were desperate to feed their children. The church arranged for a number of children to be taken from their families and adopted out to America through Catholic Relief Services. The Italian families never understood it would be permanent or that the records would be sealed. The documentary traces the attempts of this humble woman from the hills of rural Italy to New York and Chicago. A number of priests were interviewed and came across as rather shady individuals who encouraged the woman to let it go – she’d never find them. A priest from my diocese actually, who died just last year was also interviewed, since he had arranged for many of these adoptions. He ended up kicking the woman out of his office blabbering the same mantra – let it go, it’s God’s Will. I can’t help.

In the truly great film Babette’s Feast about Babette, a great French chef who escapes revolutionary France and seeks refuge in a remote Danish fishing village in which the inhabitants belong to an obscure evangelical Christian sect which eats simply and never imbibes alcohol, we see how religion, when taken to an extreme, can prevent us from the joy that religion is supposed to promise. Babette wins the lottery. She wants to thank the two ladies for their generous hospitality toward her and offers as a gift what she does best – cook a feast. It is the best of foods prepared by one of Europe’s greatest chefs, accompanied by the finest wines. Babette spends her entire fortune on that one meal. But the strict puritans can only struggle to enjoy, for they have foresworn sensuality. And that’s the point: religion can indeed prevent us from the very thing it intends for us to have.

Regardless of organized religion, it is my suspicion that the notion of destiny vs. fate or chance figures large in the psyche of the adopted. There are many what ifs lurking just below the surface in an adopted history. The film that won the Oscar this year for Best Documentary Film explored this issue. Into the Arms of Strangers was a documentary about the children of the kinder transport. In the 1930’s there was an effort to place children of German Jewish families with British families when it became more and more evident that their lives might be in danger in Nazi Germany. The documentary records the personal stories of several of these children. There was one extra extraordinary story about a girl who was brought to the train station by her family. As the time of departure was approaching her father became more and more agitated. They placed her on the train and her father began to walk along as the train moved. She was leaning out the large window until her father reached in and grabbed her, pulling her out of the train. Not too long afterward the Nazis arrested her and her family and they were sent to different concentration camps. She survived; her parents did not. She has nightmares wondering whether her father went to his death thinking he was responsible for her death since he had taken her back into his arms. Those who wish to believe in destiny argue with those who see everything as random chance about such a story.

There was another story from Into the Arms of Strangers that touches on the complexities of relationships and touched me as an adoptee. Of all those interviewed as survivors of the kinder transport only one man’s parents survived the holocaust. After the war he was reunited with his family and describes that first meeting with his father. This man seemed the most jovial and friendly of all those interviewed. He smiled when he spoke and talked glowingly of the British family that took him in. When he described meeting his father again his face changed. He became notably somber and talked of the shame he felt when his father put his hand through his hair and how embarrassed he was by the fact that his father spoke to him in German. He had grown accustomed and fond of his British family and, although he didn’t say it, you felt he really didn’t want to be reunited with his family. The complexity of relationships, I believe, is heightened in adoptive situations. Issues of loyalty become paramount. This seems especially true for male adoptees and might be one reason why a much less percentage of male adoptees search than female.

I met my birth father not long after I met my birth mother. He denied paternity then (some 15 years ago) and still does. That unresolved aspect of my story, I believe, reflects a more primordial situation between father and sons and the nature of relationships. As for my adoptive father I wonder how much his own infertility colored the way he looked at me especially when I entered puberty. That thought occurred to me gradually but noticeably during the movie Frequency about the relationship between an adult son and his long deceased father. His father was a NYC fireman (as was mine) and how, through some supernatural force, he is able to communicate with his father across time on his short-wave radio. I envy that communication, that kind of relationship -- I missed out on it with both my fathers.

Relationship hinges on a sense of belonging. The adopted often do not feel that they belong where they’re at – and this has little or nothing to do with the amount of love the adoptive family showers on the adoptee. Perhaps it has something to do with what Penny calls in her poems – mirroring -- the need to see yourself reflected in the physical bodies of those related to you by blood. Not a top-ten movie An Officer and a Gentleman moved me to cry in the theatre the first time I saw it and at first I didn’t know why. The plot: Richard Gere is a street wise punk, no mother, abusive father, no life, no future, so he joins the Navy. He develops an adversarial relationship with the drill sergeant who seemingly hates Gere. The drill sergeant punishes Gere for some mistake by brutally pushing him all day. He wants Gere to quit. “Will you quit? Will you quit?” The drill sergeant yells at him, brutalizing him. “No,” Gere shouts back. “Why won’t you quit? Why won’t you quit?” The sergeant yells. “Because,” the young man cries, “I have no where else to go.” Richard Gere broke down and cried with those words. And so did I. All the priests I know hated the seminary. My classmates couldn’t wait to get out. I could have stayed forever, I loved it so much. When it came time to go, I was heartbroken. The adopted, I think, don’t like to leave things they’ve become accustomed too. When I first lived in Korea I found it very difficult, and later worked in New York in a Korean parish for nearly 15 years. I was the only Anglo. My classmates could not understand why I stayed – some even attributed it to a certain sense of sacrifice or even holiness. The truth is though that I liked it – I felt at home being different. I was accustomed to not feeling like I belonged. I was at home in places I didn’t belong.

Orphans symbolize that for us, in our literature and in our movies. They don’t have to be literal orphans, but simply embody that essence of loss that turns even the hardest heart all mushy. They are the misfits, cousins to the bastards of this world – the misbegotten, the mistake, the mistook. I don’t remember from the plot of the movie if Tom Ripley’s family history included orphan hood, but he certainly seemed he could have fit that profile in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Please don’t get alarmed: I’m not taking this anywhere near the subject of adoptees as serial murderers [but I will say that I think we as an organization should be open to support research into the reasons why some adoptees do commit violent crimes, or partake in antisocial behavior].
I like Ripley because he was a misfit who was so convinced of his unbelonging that he did anything to belong. Not unlike Odysseus, he was ever ingenious in the way he disguised his identity. So needy was he of friendship, acceptance and love that when he couldn’t have it he let himself rage to murder and then in the end murder the very person who would have given him what he needed, but “oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” There’s that web again spinning its tale which soon must come to an end.

And so here’s the last film on my list. An old movie with Gregory Peck as Father Francis Chisolm, based on A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, about a young Scots priest who goes to China as a missionary. I cannot tell you how much this movie means to me on so many levels and how much it has affected my life. I believe for instance that on an unconscious level it was this movie that made me really want to be a priest and helped me entertain the idea of studying Chinese in college and then going to Korea many years later. It is the source of my fascination with things Chinese and my secret suspicion that I shall return there some day – perhaps for good.
But to adopted themes: Gregory Peck is a misfit of sorts. He is the product of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in 20th century Scotland – he knew what it felt like not to belong from the start. Orphaned as a boy he’s raised by his Catholic aunt who wants him desperately to be a priest. He becomes a priest when he learns his old girlfriend has become pregnant by someone else while he is away at school. She will die young leaving an illegitimate daughter who will eventually have an illegitimate son of her own, for whom Gregory Peck will return to Scotland to raise. As a young priest in Scotland he is an utter failure, an awkward hick. The old bishop, however, sees him as genuine. “You’re like stray cat wondering down the church aisle looking for a place to stay,” the bishop tells him and then sends him to China.

He remains always the unaffected humble man even when put down by the aristocratic German nun sent to work with him. His disarming personality eventually wins her over and their parting is especially bittersweet – as if they were married. Vincent Price plays the affected classmate who eventually becomes his bishop. While visiting him in China Price brings a bottle of fine European Europe. The young Chinese man, Joseph, who has virtually dedicated his life to the young priest overhears the dinner conversation when Vincent Price complains about how dirty the Chinese are and how they would all benefit from a little soap and water. The expensive bottle of wine crashes to the floor. Joseph stands there having just washed some dishes. “How could you do that, you’re so clumsy,” Vincent Price yells at the Chinese. Joseph, ever respectful, cats his eyes downward and says: “The benefit, Father, of too much soap and water.”

At Gregory Peck’s farewell when he must retire back to Scotland, Joseph, now old with grown sons of his own, is to read the farewell speech. He has written it and practiced it many times but gives up amid tears and simply says: ‘Dear Father Francis, how can I say good bye when all my memories, my joys and sorrows, are all of you.” But Father Francis must return to Scotland and take care of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate daughter of the woman he was going to marry. So the spindle spins. “All journeys,” G.K. Chesterton would write, “are about coming home.”

1. Cinema Paradiso [loss, reunion]
- mother sewing

2. Comeback Little Sheba [loss, no reunion, helplessness]

3. Empire of the Sun [reunion]
- the reunion scene at the end

4. The Keys of the Kingdom
- Joseph (cultural issues –‘soap and water)
- ex-patriated, feeling at home in a place you don’t belong
- lifetime’s vocation to find a niche, to appreciate your differences with the surrounding culture – me as priest, as missioner, Asia,

5. An Officer and a Gentleman [belonging]
- “because I have no place to go”

6. Secrets and Lies
- “you really can miss what you’ve never had”

7. Into the Arms of Strangers [chance and destiny – the girl given, taken and taken again]
- the man who suddenly lost his smile when talking about the reunion with his father

8. My Brother My Sister Sold for a Fistful of Lire

9. After Life
- the kindly looking lady who had never married and whose moment of happiness was being given a red dress by her brother

10. Babette’s Feast

11. The Talented Mr. Ripley [playing roles, being accepted, friendship and love]

12. Frequency [father-son relationship across time]

13. Solomon and Gaynor [cross cultural and religious lines]

14. You Can Count On Me [meeting the bio father]

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