Thursday, May 28, 2009

Adoptees at the Movies - Traverse City 1997

6th Biennial Conference on Open Adoption
Transforming Open Adoption

April 24-26, 1997
Traverse City, Michigan

Adoptees at the Movies
Penny Callan Partridge/Marcy Axness/Carol Demuth/Joyce Maguire Pavao/Tom Brosnan

Five movies in nine minutes: hang on -- here goes!

# 1 An Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere

The plot: No mother, abusive father, no life - so Gere joins the navy
Drill sergeant hates Gere and wants him out of the navy
The moment of truth comes:
the sergeant drills Gere brutally all day, hour after hour, never lets up
"Will you quit - will you quit - will you quit now?"
"No," Gere says, "never."
Finally the sergeant asks: "Why won't you quit?"
"Because, " Gere cries, "I have no where else to go."

Richard Gere cried at that line, and I did too. All the priests I know hated the seminary. My classmates couldn't wait to get out. But I loved it, and when the time came to graduate, to be ordained, I really didn't want to leave. I was heartbroken.

For me it is the adoptee's theme of longing to belong.


# 2. Come Back Little Sheba with Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster

The plot: Burt Lancaster is Doc, a recovering alcoholic. He's married to Shirley Booth (Lola). They're childless.
Everyday Lola goes to the front porch and calls for her missing dog Little Sheba, but she 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 or died? 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 was. We get the idea that he had to marry Lola -- and for what -- there's no child anyway.

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. It is an appropriate New Year's Eve -- Auld Langsyne -- movie. Because it's all about loss, which strikes to the heart of an adoptee.

# 3 Empire of the Sun by Stephen Spielberg

The plot: young British boy is separated from his parents in Shanghai at the outbreak of WWII.
He spends the war in a Japanese camp - it's a coming-of-age story.
The last scene is mine though. The boy is placed with other lost children. English parents come to claim their missing children. The boy is obviously traumatized. He stares straight ahead, he never blinks. The camera focuses in on his face and eyes. His father passes him, not recognizing him. Then his mother passes him, but comes back again. She calls his name, but he offers no response. She realizes, as only mothers can, this is her son. She embraces him, clutching him close to her breast. The camera hones in on the boy's eyes, always the eyes, and finally his brow unfurrows and his eyes begin to blink and then peacefully close. He is home again, at his mother's breast. He is, at last, at rest.

It reminds me of how exhausted I felt when I did my search and how, even now, some ten years later, I have managed to procrastinate tying up the loose ends, so to speak, concerning my birth father. I dread the emotional drain. If anyone here has contacts near Toronto, by the way, I could use your help!

This scene has also given me an insight into something I never understood about Catholic theology concerning the Last Things, as expressed in that ancient prayer Catholics say at funerals: "Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him and may his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen." Why would you want to rest when you got heaven I always wondered. But after seeing that beautifully crafted scene, I think I can understand a little.

# 4 Babette's Feast

The plot: a famous french chef - Babette - escapes revolutionary France to find safety in a remote Danish fishing village - a village of fundamentalist Christians who live frugally and simply, never permitting any luxury in food or conversation. And, they never drink.

Babette wins the lottery, some exorbitant amount of money. She wants to thank her hosts for their hospitality and does so the best way she knows how -- she cooks them a meal. But what a meal! The best of food prepared by the greatest European chef, accompanied by Europe's finest wines. Babette spends her entire fortune on that one meal. It is, one concludes, a Eucharist. But the strict puritans cannot really, or at least, fully, enjoy -- they have forsworn sensuality -- and that's the point: love is sensuous as it is sacramental.

Babette's Feast reminds me, as an adoptee, of the shame that religion and society have put on bastards like us, relegating our conception stories to the Harlequin section of the bookstore, or brought into the public domain by modern-day puritan judges like Anne Landers or Dr. Laura, passing judgment on the sexual indiscretions of youth. You think maybe they're jealous, realizing that, hard as they try, they can't ultimately control the power of sexuality and the sensuality of love.
# 5 The Keys of the Kingdom with Gregory Peck

Some themes: the awkward misfit, makeshift families, difficulties concerning trust and intimacy, and subplots surrounding illegitimacy, all mixed up with the exotic allure of the Orient. Between you and me this movie is one of the main reasons I became a priest.

The plot: Francis Chisolm is orphaned as a youngster.
He becomes a priest because his girlfriend gets pregnant while he's away at school.
He's is an utter failure in his first few assignments.
But the kindly old bishop, who knew him before, genuinely likes Chisolm: "Because," the bishop tells him, "you're like the stray cat wondering down the church aisle looking for a place to stay."
So he goes to China.

He's all alone in this most foreign of places until a young man named Joseph comes to join him.
But the young priest is not a trusting soul. "Why have you come -- I have no money to pay you?"
Deeply hurt, Joseph tells the young, angry priest: "I have but one desire, Father, to share the privilege of working for God."
So begins his makeshift family -- Joseph will stay with him through the years.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, his once girlfriend has already died in childbirth and her illegitimate daughter has an illegitimate son of her own.
Francis Chisolm will eventually return to Scotland as an old man to take care of that latest orphan.

I love this movie and still am not sure why.
As an adoptee I have often desperately wanted to belong to one group or another; but always felt the misfit, the odd-one-out -- this movie inspires me to accept that stance in life -- perhaps that's my real vocation -- to be a good misfit.
Anyway, I have always felt more attracted to those on the fringe of things.

I have lived and worked with Koreans for the past ten years. My first few months in Korea were very difficult -- things were so different. It was then that I made a firm decision to search for my birthmother. Dr. John Sonne, a psychiatrist who works with adoptees, has discovered that foreign travel is a major catalyst in the adoptee's desire to search.

Living with Koreans in New York's Korea Town, I am definitely the misfit, the obvious Anglo in an Asian sea. Maybe I've been trying to learn all along what Malcolm Muggeridge once said: that it was the first thing he learned in life, and prayed it would be the last -- that he was a stranger in this world; he didn't belong; his homeland was elsewhere.

Ever since I first saw this movie as a young boy I wanted to go and live in China. I have read Chinese history and studied Mandarin. I managed to visit China once. I feel strongly -- like a voice of destiny or something -- that someday I will go back and perhaps stay -- just a feeling, but a powerful one -- imaginings of taking Prester John's place as he appears in the medieval legends of Cathay, or Sam Jaffe's place in Lost Horizon's Shangri La -- but that's another movie list.
Thank you for your kind attention.
Secrets & Lies

I'd like to speak about two aspects of this film.

First: When Maurice and Monica are discussing Cynthia's having had a baby and giving it away, Monica says that she thought her other daughter had a right to know she had a brother or sister somewhere out there. The discussion is ostensibly about Cynthia but it is also subliminally about Maurice and Monica who cannot have children. It's about their loss and how Monica wants no one to know. Just as Cynthia keeps her secret about relinquishing ....'s sibling so does Monica want her secret kept.

Their discussion ends up with Maurice saying in so many words that you can miss what you've never had -- you can miss the baby you relinquished even though you never saw it. You can miss the child you always wanted but could not give birth to. And of course the main plot of the film is the adoptee's (Hortense's) decision to search and find her mother Cynthia


The next to last scene of the film I thought was well done. Cynthia has revealed Hortense to the family as her daughter. Maurice has convinced ... to return. Monica, Cynthia, .... are in the living room; Hortense sits in the dining room with her back to all. Maurice finally confesses that Monica is infertile. Monica breaks down and sobs. Cynthia, who hates Monica, moves across the room to comfort Monica. While both cry Cynthia reveals the story of ...'s .father, thus bridging another chasm. Then Hortense asks from the dining room: "Was my father nice too? Cynthia wails but refuses to talk about Hortense' father. then Hortense makes the decision to walk over to Cynthia embracing her as she embraces Monica - the pain of infertility, relinquishment and abandonment in a trinitarian embrace. Hortense has chosen to change her frame of reference and move into the living room - and that makes all the difference.

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