Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Adoptee's Eye on the I - St John's Univ. 2002

11th Annual Conference on
Multicultural and Multi-Ethnic Issues in the Behavioral Sciences
St. John’s University
Jamaica, New York
21 September 2002

An Adoptee’s Eye on the I
or The Ego I’d See if I were Me
Father Tom Brosnan

Von Balthasar, the great Catholic theologian of the last century, would redefine religion as the reuniting, a re-lacing if you will, of previously separated parts. In his encyclical Faith and Reason Pope John Paul II says that “the journey toward truth has unfolded, as it must, within the horizon of self-consciousness. It is found in both East and West, recorded in the sacred writings of Israel as well as in the Veda and the Avesta, in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, heard in the preaching of Tirthankara and the Buddha. It is a journey that leads us to heed the admonition carved on the temple portal at Delphi -- the admonition to know thyself and to answer the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I and Where have I come from? Those who seek to answer these questions, the pope proclaims, set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings,’ that is, as those who ‘know themselves.’”

Before you come to the conclusion this is going to be a deeply philosophical or religious talk let me quickly quote another philosopher who had a few moments in the limelight a couple years ago – Forest Gump who mused over his mother’s grave: “I dunno if mama was right or not, if we each have a destiny or we’re just floatin’ roun’, accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both, maybe both happening at the same time[PC1] .”

Or that poignant bit of wisdom in the recent film My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the waspy boyfriend convinces his Greek fiancée that they shouldn’t elope, that they should have a traditional Greek wedding, “Because,” he says, “you’re a part of your family and your family’s a part of you, you bring them with you even when they’re not there.”

When I was a teenager my parents gave me a beautiful plaque with the coat of arms symbolizing my mother’s father’s name. They could see I had a need for roots, but couldn’t accept that the need included my genetic roots as well as my adoptive ones. The title of this presentation is An adoptee’s eye on the “I” – the self; or The Ego I’d see if I were me. It’s a silly title but I wanted somehow to mention those elements of self that are so familiar to us whether or not we’re psychologists whether or not we actually understand what Freud meant by Ego, Id and Superego. It’s a way of saying that when I look at myself in the mirror, there’s a mystery there that eludes and simultaneously beckons. Now, I believe this is true for everyone. But with us who are adopted is added that additional element of being raised in a family that is not our genetic family. The interplay of genes and environment takes on an added significance. You want to know when you made that mistake or won that victory – where did that inspiration come from: nature or nurture.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming influence of Freud at the birth of psychotherapy conjoined with that much older philosophical myth – that we are born tabula rosa, blank slates -- that contributed to the popular belief propounded by the Dr. Spocks of the twentieth century that all you need is love. Adopt a baby and with love fill up that blank slate with all the good you can and mold that human being into a fine, loving upstanding citizen. Only in the last twenty years or so has the import of that genetic component begun to be appreciated, how genes not only effect our physicality but our emotional and psychological well-being too. Yet, the myth lingers. Wide-eyed pre-adoptive parents willing to believe that a child’s genetic heritage, natal environment and infancy experience could not possibly be all that important – as they hop that plane to China or Eastern Europe or South America. That’s not to say that these children should not be adopted; but adoption professionals need to assist prospective adoptive parents in preparing for and rearing children who suffer from deprivations concerning attachment. Centers like Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao’s Center for Family Connections are needed today more than ever.

Searching for Identity is not simply doing a genealogy. It’s about what we see each time we look in the mirror or enter into any mode of self-reflection. You’re searching for yourself, who you are and where you fit.

Being a priest I’m a bit familiar with the Bible though not as familiar with it in the literal way many evangelical Christians are. But whether you take the bible literally or not one thing about reading it is that there’s no obvious way of knowing what intonation to use when you hear the words in your mind’s ear. You know, when the voice rises at the end of a phrase in a certain manner, adding a distinctive subtlety to the question posed. Like the scene when Jesus takes his disciples off to a secluded spot and asks them a question that every adoptee asks himself sometime in his life: “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Some argue that Jesus is just setting the scene for the revelation of his Messiahship but I read it differently. I should say, I hear it differently. I hear a note of desperation in Jesus’ question. Maybe he wondered a bit. Maybe he really wasn’t sure what the answer was. That thought gives me, and my adoptee self, a lot of hope – I don’t feel so alone.

Another biblical image comes to mind – that of Moses encountering the burning bush. “Who are you?” Moses asks the voice emanating from the flaming tree. This scene, biblical scholars tell us, sets the stage for that great revelation – for the first time in human history divinity will reveal his sacred name. But wait – there’s another revelation that precedes this – one just as important and maybe even more so (at least to Moses) -- the revelation of who Moses was. “Who are you? “ Moses asks. And the voice responds: “I am the God of your fathers.” I hear a pause at this juncture and wonder if the adopted Moses held his breath right then, at that moment, and wondered what every adoptee would wonder in the same situation: Which father? Are you the God of my Egyptian father or my Hebrew father? Then divinity reveals to the adopted Moses true identity: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Then, only after Moses knew who he really was -- a Hebrew raised Egyptian -- could he hear receive the name of God Himself.

“The complete loss of one’s identity,” the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray would say, “is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.”
One side of the search is to acknowledge that loss. My adoptive mother, that is, my mother – died in April after a long illness. I figure she spent ninety-nine percent of her eighty-two years living on the same block in Brooklyn – on her beloved Webster Avenue. She spent nearly seventy of those eighty-two years in the same small row house from which she died. My mother told me once that when I was a baby my father went looking for a bigger house. He found one he liked but my mother convinced him to stay right there on Webster Avenue – it was home she said. It’s like my mother took one of those vows of stability that certain monks do, promising to live their entire lives in one place. My mother, I’m sure, needed that familiar anchor, that security of brick and mortar, to help her cope with the losses of her life. When I die I will have considered it the great accomplishment of my life to have been able to allow my mother to die in that very same house, in her home of so many years, amid her familiar things – the things that had, all throughout her life, helped ease the pain of her many losses.

For me the saddest thing regarding her death was when they removed her body from the house the night she died. I wondered as I saw them place her body in the undertaker’s van: Did she, could she, from deep in the valley of shadows, glimpse for one last time the house that she and her parents came to live so long ago, the house where she brought her devoted husband to live their fifty-two years together, the house where they in turn brought me to live? Was she able from that valley of shadows – where many believe the soul lingers for a time within the lifeless body – did she sense that last turn off Webster Avenue? I don’t know if she could, but I could see it for her. I could feel that aching goodbye. And I think I knew what she would have known, felt what she would have felt – because it was the loss that an orphan knows so well. I believe that kind of sharing runs deeper than blood and carves out the riverbed which becomes your entire life. I believe David Kirk made a lasting contribution to the study of the psychology of the adopted when he wrote Shared Fate, the premise of which is to say that the shared experience of loss is what cements the adoptive family together. We were pilgrims together, my mother and I, even when we didn’t realize it even if we didn’t acknowledge it.

I love reading Richard Rodriguez. He titled his latest book Brown. It’s about many things, not the least of which is race. He’s talking about himself as the son of Mexican parents grown up in California, as the product of Indian and Spanish blood, a mestizo, brown. But he’s talking about his inner self as well: how he sees himself, and how others seek to control the way he sees himself and the varied aspects of his being. The way bookstaores classify you is a good example he says. “Most bookstores,” he says, “have replaced disciplinary categories with racial or sexual identification. In either case I must be shelved Brown. The most important theme of my writing now is impurity. My mestizo boast: As a queer Catholic Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate Chinese city in a fading blond state in a post-Protestant nation, I live up to my sixteenth century birth.”

Brown - Rodriguez uses as the motif of his inner self, “not in the sense of pigment, necessarily,” he says, “but brown because mixed, confused, lumped, impure, unpasteurized, as motives are mixed, and the fluids of generation are mixed and emotions are unclear, and the tally of human progress and failure in every generation is mixed.”

Some adoptees are brown on the outside while their parents are white. And they find ways to emphasize the difference or ways to camouflage. Take Dhani Bachmann for example. He has brown skin which stands out dramatically when he puts on his colorful uniform of yellow and blue and red and his shining pointed helmet. But the contrast is never more dramatic as when he marches in line next to his very white, blonde comrades-in-arms. Dhani was born in India, most likely of Hindu parents, and adopted by Swiss Catholic parents. He is the first non-white member of the elite Papal Swiss Guard. The photo of Dhani in the uniform of the Swiss Guard appeared in newspapers throughout the world and the picture says it all. Without words Dhani Bachmann declares to the whole world his mixed status, his mestizo-ed self, which his adoption as well as his self-confidence has made possible. To see the photograph is to know he is making a statement, an eloquent statement, declaring himself a human being, as the one whom he has sworn to protect put it: “a human being -- one who seeks to know himself.”

I believe all adoptees are brown in this sense, brown at least on the inside, mestizo-ed, so to speak, in the language of Richard Rodriguez, impure. And also from the point of view of society and religion, of church in particular – impure – a forbidden mix of the unmarried usually; usually illegitimate by birth, the record of our origins sealed or amended (so-called), fictionalized, falsified. The state changed the facts of my birth and the church did much worse. The church, and Catholic bishops in particular changed the names with which we, the adopted, were baptized. Trying to erase what they saw as impurity. They wanted to puritanize us, save us from scandal, save themselves from embarrassment. And in so doing they lied. “The worst lie,” Augustine declared, “is that which religion deploys for its own advance.” Part of the task of what we mean by search is to embrace that part of us, that shadow self, that impurity, that mezcla, that mestizo-ed me.

I’ll always remember that once, in grade school, hearing another boy refer to me as “chink eyes.” I had always noticed this about my eyes, a physical phenomenon I would only recently discover is called the epicanthic fold, that fold of skin that covers the eye’s inner corner. It seemed to have been more pronounced when I was younger. It’s defined as a marker for those of Asian race, “in others,” the dictionary says, “it is an anomaly.” I’ve long felt at home in place I didn’t belong. I am a citizen of that land of anomaly.
In the geneticist Bryan Sykes recent book The Seven Daughters of Eve, he cites some genetic anomalies: how a schoolteacher from Edinburgh carries the unmistakable signature of Polynesian DNA. She knows her own family history well for the past two hundred years, and there is nothing that gives any clue as to how this exotic piece of DNA came to her from the other side of the world. And the genetic sequence of a book salesman from Manchester that is so unusual that his closest match is found among native Australians of Queensland, aborigines all. Or how two fishermen from a small island off the west coast of Scotland both possess a very unusual DNA sequence, but are not immediately related to each other. Their common ancestor can only have come from the Siberia of the distant past. Or how the DNA sequence, so common to Koreans, turns up regularly in fishermen from Norway and northern Scotland.

I would go on to study Chinese in college. I later lived in Korea, studying language and culture. As a priest, and the only Anglo, I lived for fifteen years in the largest Korean Catholic parish in the United States right near here in Flushing. Trying to figure out on some level, I suppose, that anomaly made conscious to me by the boy in grade school verbalizing what he saw in my eyes. Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Who knows: maybe one of those Mongol Hordes of the fourteenth century sweeping across the Russian steppe to the gates of Vienna; one of those Mongol Hordes leaving his seed, by romance or rape, somewhere in Poland until, in 1929, his progeny -- my father’s parents -- emigrated to Canada -- a recessive gene that popped out in me.

When Stephen Dubner abandoned the Catholic Faith into which he was born and baptized, to his parent’s great pain, he was claiming the faith of his ancestors. In his autobiography, Turbulent Souls, Dubner relates the story of how his Jewish parents came to Catholicism but kept their Jewish roots and family a secret from their children. Dubner’s discovery and return to Judaism was a pilgrimage to his origins. “Was it love,” he questioned, “that had inspired my return to Judaism? No I told myself, not love. It was something smaller than love, less desperate. It was instinct. My noisy soul had demanded that I follow the flow of my blood.”

St Augustine put it this way: “The impulse present in our seeing goes out beyond the seeker, and hovers as it were, unable to rest in any other goal until what is sought has been found and the seeker is united with it. This impulse, or search, does not seem to be love, which we have for known things, since it is an effort toward the unknown. Yet it has a quality cognate to love’s…the seeker wills to find …something knowable.” I would be presumptuous enough to add to Augustine and say that in the adopted this quality is both impulse and love since we once knew what we later seek.

We have to follow that impulse despite the attempt of family or institutions to control us, to sanitize, to puritanize our past. Like in the opening season episode of the Sopranos last week when Uncle Junior’s rather simple bodyguard/home attendant is given a promotion within the family by Tony Soprano. While they’re eating breakfast together in a dinner, the simple bodyguard begins to muse about world events and their significance.

“You know Tony,” he says, “it’s really something how way back Quasimodo predicted all these things that are happening today. You know disasters and the end of the world and all that.”
“What are you talking about?” Tony Soprano says.
“It was Nostradamus, not Quasimodo. Quasimodo was the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“Yeah,” the bodyguard says. “Hunchback, quarterback, halfback…”
Increasingly frustrated, Tony Soprano yells: “Notre Dame -- like the Cathedral not the football team.”
“Yeah, whatever,” the uneducated but content bodyguard replies.
Tony Soprano gives up trying to control the connections this uneducated, simple but carefree man is making, his freedom to wonder, and in wandering from sound to sound making connections that at first seem absurd until the viewer begins to see this rather overweight illiterate as one would see a Quasimodo – defective in some way but a seeker nonetheless, as someone who is seeking answers to the important questions of life, someone trying to become a reflective human being. Facing anomalies can help us make connections, if we’re willing to view things outside the box and risk seeming laughable. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – it’s in trying to answer the anomalies and not just accept them without question, which leads to new discoveries and inventions, to scientific breakthroughs, to new ways of perceiving reality.

Courage is what’s needed in the face of those who want to control our thinking and questioning; in the face of those who want to prevent us from seeking answers, from searching for the truth. The institution of closed adoption through sealed records, or Catholic bishops by falsifying baptismal certificates – Tony Sopranos all, getting all frustrated because they cannot control though they try to – try to sanitize and puritanize, save face, “do what’s best for the family,” as Tony Soprano might say. We need the courage of a Dhani Bachmann claiming his place in the Papal Swiss Guard; or the courage of a Richard Rodriguez in order to see our inner mixed self as impure and call it good.

When he was twenty-three Michelangelo saw a piece of marble and set about releasing the image he could already see inside, creating his remarkable Pieta. It was, according to the critics of the time, striking and shocking. It was, after all, distorted in scale. The huge, bigger than life Mother, holding the spent beautiful body of her son. One wonders why the artist didn’t, at first, sign his work -- this remarkable masterpiece of human history. Was it shame, or fear perhaps, that made the young Michelangelo so reticent about claiming it. Perhaps it was the striking despondency of a mother relinquishing her only child; or the shame the young artist must have felt about his strong attraction to the male form, the beauty of a man’s body. It was no doubt those mixed feelings, the lack of a so-called purity of intention, that may have made him reticent about claiming what he found in the stone, what he found inside himself. When the sculpture was unveiled to the public Michelangelo hid behind a column in back of the statue to overhear people’s comments.
“Do you like this piece,” he heard someone ask. “It was created by my countryman Giovanni Baptista.”
“Oh no,” remarked someone else. “It was my sculptor, Pietro Riganno who created it.”

Filled with a certain righteous anger, and perhaps a well-earned pride, Michelangelo returned with his chisel that night, and there upon the breast of the Virgin he carved the words: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this. It was, perhaps, an irresistible impulse that helped him finally claim the object that not only emerged from stone, but from his inner self as well. There, upon the heart of the mother, for all of Rome to see, he carved his name.

Teresa of Avila would reform the Church in sixteenth century Spain. But she was also a mystic, having received visions of the divine which produced in her an ecstasy and peace that her nuns saw reflected on her face and in her manner. Teach us, they begged Teresa, teach us to experience God like you do. But the wise Teresa would only reply: “For never, never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything else more fitting than self knowledge.”

We are not meant to be puritans; but we are meant to be pilgrims, journeying into that self – distorted, shocking, impure, shadowed, brown, mestizo-ed self – and embracing it by love or impulse. Becoming one of those that seek to know themselves -- becoming a human being.

Thank you for your kind attention.

[PC1]Use at

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