Thursday, May 28, 2009

Adoption: Pitfalls & Promises St Louis, MO 2000

Perspectives on Adoption
Second Annual Adoption Conference

SSM St. Mary’s Health Center
St. Louis, Missouri
28 October 2000

Adoption: Pitfalls and Promises
[a discussion of how adoptive parents may approach
the challenge of their children’s anger and loss]
Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan

The title of this presentation is Adoption: Pitfalls and Promises -- a discussion of how adoptive parents may approach the challenge of their children’s anger and loss. Let me begin with a scene from one of James Joyce’s short stories from The Dubliners, which John Houston had also made into a movie – it’s called The Dead. In a scene near the end of the story Gabriel and his wife Greta, both in mid-life, are readying to leave a dinner party. Gabriel is about to call Greta when he sees her at the top of the stairs listening to the music coming from the next room. She is strangely distant and Gabriel knows that something important, something profound, is happening to Greta just at that moment. Observing her from the shadows enkindles a renewed passion in Gabriel -- he assumes her distant look and tearful eye are connected to him in someway. Later in their hotel room Gabriel is keen on renewing that passion and confidently asks Greta what she was thinking about when he caught her listening to the old Irish ballad. It is then that Greta breaks down and sobs uncontrollably, telling her bewildered husband how before she met him she was courted by a young man named Michael Fury who sang that same song to her outside her window in the drenching rain the night before she was to leave for a convent school. Young Michael Fury caught his death that night. And she knew he died for love of her. This poignantly tragic but beautiful memory was Greta’s, but it was not Gabriel’s. The cold fact that Greta had a history before him is like a slap in the face to the middle-aged Gabriel. It was the tune of the ancient ballad that triggered the memory in Greta, and Gabriel realized – because he loved her so much – that he had no right to trespass on such sacred space. Human beings have a need and a right to grieve their own losses. No one can grieve for you – it is personal. Love sometimes demands distance.

On hearing this story and the theme of this presentation, some might think we all have a pretty pessimistic view of adoption. But dealing with loss and anger are not specific to the adoptive family. Every family faces anger and loss issues. Adoptive families will have to deal with anger and loss in the course of their histories. Like when your son’s first dog dies or he gets into his first fight at school. When your daughter is rejected by her boyfriend or doesn’t make the soccer team. These are the kinds of challenges all parents must deal with whether birth or adoptive. No difference there. But there is a caveat. Loss and rejection for the adopted person may indeed trigger a recollection that predates verbal memory – like Greta’s suppressed memory of Michael Fury. The loss experienced in relinquishment, I believe, is remembered on a cellular level if not a verbal one within the adopted person. Subsequent losses may impact the adoptee in a more profound way than his non-adopted peer because of that earlier more primordial traumatic loss. John Henry Newman, whose life spanned the 19th century a migrant from Anglicanism to Catholicism, spoke about the primordial loss connected with the Christian doctrine of original sin by using the image of an orphan. “Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birth-place or hi family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one of whom, for one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being.”

Here’s a psychological sound bite, if you will: anger and hurt are two sides of the same coin. Anger is a reaction, a response to something that’s happened to us, a response to something that has hurt us in some way. As an emotion, anger is neither good nor bad, but it can be disproportionate to the hurt experienced. And when it is – that’s a clue to a deeper hurt we’ve experienced that we’re not facing and we are transpose one hurt for another. In other words we sometimes get angry at the wrong people and situations. The adopted, by virtue of adoption, have all experienced relinquishment as rejection. Some have a hard time accepting this; but please understand I am not saying that as an adult I cannot understand and appreciate the decision my mother made to relinquish me when I was born. What I am saying is that -- as an infant – that relinquishment can only be emotionally received by me as rejection. Just as the little boy or girl of 4 or 5 cannot understand at 4 or 5 the death of a parent– they first feel it as a personal rejection of them by the deceased mom or dad.

This loss or relinquishment or perceived rejection is what we naturally want to bandage up. Especially as parents who do not want to see their children hurt. I’m sure this is part of the reason my parents didn’t tell me I was adopted. They didn’t want to see me hurt. One of the recurring themes I hear in my mind’s ear is my mother at every important juncture of my life – “I just don’t want to see you disappointed.” But I think it’s also true to say that we don’t like to see hurt in another’s eyes, especially our children, when we have some connection to it. Adoptive parents do not want to see their children grieve loss because on some unconscious level you know that the joy of the adoption you have experienced rests on that relinquishment. Things are very intertwined and complicated in adoption, feelings are not easily sorted, grief sometimes feels too overwhelming.

Let me refer once again to identity, that is to lost identity and the pilgrimage toward identity I mentioned this morning. Perhaps you will grant me this axiom: a person doesn’t start out on a pilgrimage if everything is absolutely OK where he’s already at. Moses didn’t lead the Hebrews from the only home they knew for generations because all was hunky dory in Egypt. In other words, pilgrims are disgruntled people. Like emigrants – in search for something better. Immigrants don’t leave family and friends and home because everything is perfect and just the way they want it. They leave because they imagine things will be better at the end of their journey. The adopted are first emigrants, then immigrants; they are pilgrims and seekers, adventurers and journeymen. Their uneasiness with issues of identity, not quite fitting, a floating feeling of being misplaced somehow, of not quite belonging – thee are the motivations behind the search. And this search can be a conscious search for birth family or simply a move from one place to another, a change of relationship or job or neighborhood. Now we might judge that to be a bad thing, this uneasiness and dissatisfaction, but I would suggest it is the mark of a pilgrim, of a seeker and searcher. It is what every human being is about to some degree.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist who journeyed from communist sympathizer to ardent Christian wrote in his autobiography about this feeling. “This sense of being a stranger,” Muggeridge said, “first came to me at the very beginning of my life, which I have never quite lost, however engulfed I may be, at particular times, in earthly pursuits…For me there has always been – and I count it the greatest of all blessings – a window never finally blacked out, a light never finally extinguished. Days or weeks or months might pass. Would it never return – the lostness? I strain my ears to hear it, like distant music; my eyes to see it, a very bright light very faraway. Has it gone forever? And then – ah the relief. Like slipping away from a sleeping embrace, silently shutting a door behind one, tiptoeing off in the gray light of dawn – a stranger again. The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize,” Muggeridge says, “is to feel ourselves at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens we cannot forget our true homeland…”

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is necessary hat a child have a home and all that that means. But ultimately all of us will on some level come to the same spiritual realization – that we belong not only here but somewhere else – it is perhaps the one great proof so to speak for the existence of God – namely that we feel we do not belong only in the here and now and yearn for something else, something more, something greater than ourselves. All human beings experience this – but the adopted are emblems of such a reality. We not only know this reality as a spiritual drive, but we know it on a physical level, we know it genetically so to speak. That’s why the title of Joyce Pavao’s book The Family of Adoption conveys the ultimate paradox – that by the tragic loss of family the adopted can truly belong to a wider family inclusive of other adoptees who feel life in similar ways. But the nudge to become the pilgrim is often followed by anger, again like the Hebrews following Moses soon become disgruntled and regret having left their servitude in Egypt.

When I was in the seminary we were evaluated by the faculty at regular intervals. Not only for academic abilities but on interpersonal relations. My evaluation often said that I displayed anger. This came as a shock to me. I never blew up at anybody. I never raised my voice. I thought I blended in, an affable, quiet, unobtrusive sort – the good adoptee all around. When I questioned my evaluators, they would all say the same thing – no it was nothing I said or did especially –but everyone felt it just the same – I walked in an aura of anger, as one priest put it. There were times, and there still are, when I would blow up and overreact. This happened with my parents most of all. Remember that your child’s ability to express anger with you is ultimately a good thing – a sign perhaps of his comfort to express unpleasant emotions.

When I was searching for my birth mother I went to the offices of the Catholic Home Bureau try to get some information. I was a priest by then and went to meet the nun in charge, Sr. Una. Sr. Una has, I am told, just retired from her job as director of the agency after many many years. Now, I knew Sr. Una was not supposed to give any identifying information out. I sat across the desk from her. She had a folder there and read some facts about my mother and father that I savored, still uncertain whether I would get a copy of the information. I thought I might push the envelope and asked if she would tell me my mother’s name. “Oh, no Father,” she said in a whiney voice that seemed to complement the stereotypical social work bun in the back of her head. “I can’t give out that information.” “Just her first name,” I was begging now. “I’d like to know my mother’s first name.” “Oh Father,” she said in a tone of voice that I heard as condescension, “Didn’t you have a good adoption? Why would you want to know?” I felt then a cascade of rage within and found myself standing, leaning over her desk, and screaming at the top of my lungs. I know with certainty that if I had had a gun I would have killed Sr. Una. No doubt about it – she would have been dead. As I look back – I know that my anger was displaced. Although Sr. Una could have given me that information, she was not the cause of secrecy. However, I believe my rage was not disproportionate to the hurt received and the ongoing assault of the secrecy that involved my life. After all who has more of a right to my name than me. And when you ask a person why would you want to know something that everyone else has a right to know – you are placing that person in the status of the disenfranchised, instilling guilt for desiring what everyone else has. I believe my anger was displaced but proportionate to the terrible injustice that closed adoption system still imposes on me and the adopted like me. By the way that experience I relive whenever I have the opportunity of reading the story of Moses and the rage the scripture said he felt when he saw the Egyptian beating the Hebrew and the subsequent killing of the Egyptian.

I’d like to mention another trigger for anger –at least for me – it has to do with names.
Ancient peoples and still, in our day, more traditional cultures place immense importance on names. Some still believe they carry a representation of the person in some way. Even most of us “more sophisticated” westerners will allow for the psychological power names convey. Just think of the names others called you in your youth that hurt you so much. Or the derogatory names that enflame racial tensions and the like.

In 1988 I had the good fortune to be studying in Korea during the Olympics. It was a great moment for Korea – the Olympics was Korea’s debut, so to speak, on the world scene. The feelings of national pride were palpable as you walked through the streets. It was a pride born of a long history of loss – what is known in Korean as han. That was made clear during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics when an elderly Korean gentleman lit the Olympic flame and the entire nation, it seemed, began to chant his name. At first it was clear he was chosen because he was the first Korean to have won a gold medal years back. But there was more to this than simply a man who ran fast. It had been the 1936 Olympics. At the time Korea had was a colony of Japan. Korea remained annexed to Japan by force of arms from 1910 through 1945. Japan subjugated Korea, not only through military force, but through a psychological possession of sorts. All Koreans had to learn Japanese. School was conducted in Japanese. If a group of Korean men were found conversing in Korean on the street they were arrested and imprisoned. And then the ultimate subjugation – every Korean had to take a Japanese name. This was especially humiliating. Remember that as a Confucian people Koreans venerate their deceased through reverence toward the nameplate which represents the ancestor. And so when this Korean man won the gold medal in 1936 he had to receive his award while standing under the Japanese flag. And it was his Japanese name, not his given Korean name, that was broadcast throughout the world as the gold medal winner. In 1988 the memory of Japanese oppression was still very much alive in middle-aged and elderly Koreans. And so, as if to right a terrible injustice, a nation chanted their hero’s Korean name as he lit the Olympic flame – as if they were righting a terrible injustice, reclaiming what was stolen, all through the power of names.

Here’s another example about the power of names. A new book by Helen Fremont called After Long Silence, not about adoption but about the loss of identity and names in particular. After Long Silence is Helen Fremont’s memoir of discovering as an adult having been raised Catholic that her parents were really Jewish and how she uncovered the story of their terrible ordeal before and after the war in Poland. How they kept their lives and history a secret from their daughters and their neighbors and friends. How her parents on moving to America became Catholic, brought their children up Catholic, kept Gentile friends. Helen Fremont realizes that there were hints and signs all along the way that things didn’t quite fit, but it is only in hindsight -- after you know the truth -- that things fall into place, finally make sense. One poignant episode is about the author’s mother and her aunt – her mother’s sister. During the Nazi occupation of their town Ukrainian Nazi sympathizers massacred a large number of Jews in the town square. Both the author’s mother and aunt survived the massacre, protected from detection by the dead bodies that covered their bodies. Her aunt told her the story fifty years after the event – after the author confronted her parents and aunt about their history. Her aunt confessed in shame that since the day of the massacre fifty years previous, she could not remember her own sister’s name. For the rest of their lives, she called her sister by the nickname she used that day during the massacre. She was too ashamed to tell her sister she could not remember.
The author goes on to say:
What I didn’t realize was that all our names had been recently invented. My mother had survived the war using a false name and papers; she had escaped from the Nazis dressed as an Italian soldier, under yet another name and false papers. My parents had changed our family name upon applying for citizenship in the United States. To this day,” Fremont confesses, “I (too) don’t even know what my mother’s real name is.”

When I found my birth mother one of the first things she said was: “You know, I named you for my brother, Tom. It was her brother Tom (you might remember from my short autobiography from the morning) who arranged for my mother’s journey to New York to give birth to me. I had found him before I found her. I discovered that he had died young, at 36 back in 1963. I went to visit is grave once. He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery on the grounds of Georgetown University in Washington DC. He had been a priest. My mother told me he was my namesake and I wonder if names, perhaps, carry more influence than we might imagine.

The loss of names is emblematic of loss of identity. Certificates of birth and baptism are kept secret from the adoptee. They are sealed in most states. The history of adoption is a complicated one in this country. Beginning in the 1930s state by state would begin to seal once open records on adoption, ostensibly to protect the adopted from the stigma of illegitimacy – the word itself stamped across the birth certificate in red letters. It seems we have inherited more from the Puritans than their work ethic. Sealing those records were meant to protect the adoptee, but not keep him in the dark about his origins. It wasn’t until the 1950s that those records were sealed from the adopted themselves. In other words, closed records were never intended to be kept secret from those whom they sought to protect – only from society at large.

Why then did it happen? In my opinion it was the collusion of psychology, religion and law that made for sealed records. Psychology, up until fairly recently, taught that it was environment rather than heredity which played the major part in human development. And legal recourse to sealed records encouraged adoptive parents to believe that psychology’s judgment about environmental influences was indeed true. In the religious arena, the churches played no small role in shaming unwed mothers. They encouraged them to relinquish their children, teaching that to keep their children would be selfish. To the adoptive parents, the saccharine and dangerous platitude was offered: that love is all you need. If you love this child, he would be as if born to you and everyone will live happily ever after. This collusion encouraged people on the one hand to believe with psychology that love could eradicate biology and then, through religion to believe, ever so perfidiously, that love would want to.

As adoptive parents you have a choice to make regarding your child’s name. You will give that child your surname and then decide about a given-name. If the child as already been named will you keep it? I would suggest that if you do not keep the names your children were already given, you should honor them in some way, perhaps incorporating that name into the new name or keeping it as a middle name. Friends of mine adopted a boy from Korea whose family name was Lee. Thye are of Irish background and so chose for him the first name of Liam. The bottom line, it seems to me, is the fact that your child’s birth name is part of your child’s unique history. How you share that history with your child will be a process that you must decide. But please remember that it is your child’s history, not yours. It is his name. It should, in some way, be honored.

These days secrecy in adoption is not as prevalent, thank God, as it once was. My parents didn’t tell me I was adopted until I as twelve. Now, that was not such a good idea! When I found my birthmother I told my parents (that was a very hard thing to do because I knew it would cause them such pain). But it was only when I told them that they started talking about it. They were told by the agency that they should tell from the start. My mother told me she was always going to tell me but her mother, with whom we lived, told her that if she told me it would never be the same. It was only through my seventh grade teacher’s insistence that my parents told me. And once they did we never talked about it again. It was never mentioned but as I look back I can see it was the very air we breathed. Recently it occurred to me that I have no recollection of my parents referring to my birth. It was always sidestepped with euphemisms. My mother would say something like: “Oh Aunt Margaret died after you arrived. Or, “we got the Ford, “before you appeared on the scene.” Family secrets, of any kind -- but especially about adoption, are never healthy. When I asked my parents why they never talked about it they said because you never asked. How often I have heard this from other adoptees I cannot tell you. It’s not the child’s responsibility to approach family secrets – it’s sometimes not within his capability to verbalize what he needs to. Adoptive parents are called on to be courageous enough to venture into those waters that cause discomfort to them because it is in the best interest of their children.

Loyalty issues within the adoptive family can be a source of difficulty. How often adoptees say they started their search after their adoptive parents died so as not to hurt them. If you’ve ever been a part of adoption support groups, or attend adoption conferences, you know that women far outnumber men as participants. Why do more male adoptees search than female adoptees? Some suggest loyalty issues may be more intertwined with male self-identification. I believe that, although in some cases search may be directly related to difficult interpersonal relations within the adoptive family, for the most part searching for your birth family is not about being disloyal to your adoptive family. It’s about honoring your connections. An adoptees ability to search can be directly proportionate to his level of comfort within the adoptive family. The adoptive parents are the real parents of the child and always will be. If anything, search strengthens the bond within the adoptive family. It was only after I searched that my parents and I began to talk about the secret we had all conspired to keep.

Penny Partridge is a friend of mine. She is an adoptee, and adoptive parent and a writer. Her poetry and essays are windows into the inner life of the adopted showing us what it feels like to be adopted. I strongly recommend her work to you. In what essay called “Daddy” Penny recalls the day she told her parents she was about to search for her birth mother. “Her father objected: ‘(But) what if she’s gone on and married a senator, and you arrive at their house in the middle of a cocktail party? You could ruin the man’s career!”
“Daddy!” Penny writes, “you’re my father. “You’re supposed to worry about ME – not some man you don’t even know!”
“And this man – possibly one of the world’s least demonstrative human beings except with cats, to whom he talked with incredible sweetness and affection – came across the living room with arms open wide and I saw tears in his eyes. ‘Oh my dear!’ he said, ‘What can I do to help?’
That’s how my father got it that I needed and wanted him as a father…what a shame for both my father and me that he was my father for thirty years without really feeling it. But this is why I like to say that, among other things, my search got me my adoptive father…”

Another great movie recently released is the documentary Into the Arms of Strangers (definitely should receive an Oscar nomination). It is a documentary about the “kindertransport” – the placement of German Jewish children with British families in the 1930s in order to save them from impending doom. Some ten thousand children of varying ages were placed. The United States refused to accept any. Some 100,000 Jewish children were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust. In the film I believe seven were interviewed and of them only one had parents who had survived the Holocaust and were later reunited with their son after he had grown up since about the age of five in his British family. The man was the most pleasant and friendly looking of those interviewed. He was affable and seemed to try always to smile, to put an appreciative touch onto all that he experienced. When he discussed his fist meeting with his father, however, his expression changed. I think his eyes filled as he told the camera that at their first meeting when reunited -- he was perhaps sixteen or so -- his father went to move his hair through his son’s hair but the son brushed his father’s hand away. A volume was said in that one gesture and in the man’s eyes as he told the story. It was, I think, a story of divided loyalties, of emerging manhood, of displacement. The man suffered more than the others did – because his loyalties to the host family were suddenly in conflict with those he felt for his own family.

The pain is appreciably greater because the man realizes, as he did as a boy of sixteen, that his forced displacement saved his life. When the circumstances are less than noble, other factors come into play as well. “An estimated 100,000Australian Aborigines make up Australia’s so-called lost generation,” Time Magazine recently reported. “Under a government policy that ran from 1910 through 1971 as man as 1 in 10 of all Aboriginal children were removed from their families in an effort to civilize them by assimilation into white society. A practice,” the article said, “based on a theory of eugenics widely accepted in the early 1900s that thought by bringing mixed-blood Aborigines into the white world, the color could be bred out of them over a few generations.”

Perhaps the same thoughts were running through the mind of Pope Pius IX (recently beatified this past September) when in 1858, while still the temporal ruler of the Papal States, he sent his police to the Jewish home of the Mortara family in Bologna and took from them their six year old son Edgardo – never to return him. A Catholic servant girl had secretly baptized the boy and then told papal police. Pius IX, believing that no baptized child could be raised by Jewish parents, insisted on his right to raise the boy himself. Many historians believe it was this action, which enraged the European community, that eventually caused the fall of the pope from temporal power, the loss of the Papal States and the unification of Italy. Some ten years after the vent with Edgardo at his side, Pius IX met with representatives of the Jewish community. The pope looked at Edgardo saying, “My son, you have cost me dearly, and I have suffered a great deal because of you.” And then, turning to the Jewish community he added: “both he powerful and the powerless tried to steal this boy from me, and accused me of being barbarous and pitiless. They cried for his parents, but they failed to recognize that I too am his father.” Edgardo would go on to become a priest. He would take the religious name Pius in honor of the pope. He would be the first to testify in favor of Pius’ beatification. He died in a Belgian monastery in 1940 two months before the Nazis invaded. He died a natural death, which thankfully saved him from the horror of the concentration camps – a certain fate because, despite his baptism, Jewish blood still ran through his veins.

The issues of loyalty loom large in the psyche of the adopted as it did for Australian aborigines raised in white families who were forcibly taken from their parents. As it did in the extraordinary life of Edgardo Mortara who went so far in denying his allegiance to family and faith. Perhaps it is not unrelated to the orphan psyche – that unconscious fear of being abandoned or rejected for the second time. Flaubert captures it in a delicate way in Madame Bovary, when Emma Bovary “replaced her maid with Felicity, a young girl of fourteen, an orphan with a sweet face. She forbade her wearing cotton caps, taught her to address her in the third person, to bring a glass of water on a plate, to knock before coming into a room, to iron, starch, and to dress her. The new servant obeyed without a murmur so as not to be sent away, ad as Madame usually left the key in the sideboard, Felicite every evening took a small supply of sugar that she ate in her bed after she had said her prayers.”

A few years ago before my father died I had taken him for some minor surgery to the hospital. Upon discharging him I had to sign some papers on which the doctor described how to take the medication. When I was showing my mother the papers, her eyes fell to the bottom of the page and she asked whose signature is this. “It’s mine, “ I said. “You’d never know it,” she said. I can make out the Thomas but the Brosnan is all messy. Immediately I though she’s right. I felt incredibly guilty. I thought that maybe I had been denying my adoptive family by my illegible signature. For a moment I thought well tomorrow I could begin the process of changing my signature and changing all the accounts, the personal accounts =, the one with my parents. The church accounts and all the legal document connected with church and school and family. Then I thought but this is my signature. But then if it were really mine, I wouldn’t be figuring out how to change it to please my mother. I just let her comment pass unanswered and explained the doctor’s instruction, noticing his completely undecipherable signature. Loyalty is only an issue when you’re not on solid footing. An adoptive home open to the notion that the adopted child does belong in two families albeit differently – is the solid footing on which loyalties are not questioned or felt.

Permit me to conclude with a reference to this wonderful city of yours, St. Louis that has some distant connection with Brooklyn and with me in a way. There are several connections, actually. First, the previous Archbishop of St. Louis who died a few years ago was John Cardinal Carberry a priest originally from Brooklyn, who was baptized in our cathedral church the neighboring parish to my first assignment. That assignment was Queen of All saints Church where I was ordained a priest. Queen of All Saints church is a beautiful church built in imitation of La Sainte Chappelle in France, which of course was built in the thirteenth century by King Louis IX, later canonized a saint, and for whom this city is named. St. Louis built La Sante Chappelle as a shrine tin which to venerate the remains of the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Jesus before he was led to his crucifixion. It’s strange we honor or venerate such relics – that are directly connected with suffering. But I think that is my point in this presentation that a person’s personal pain, the tragic losses he suffers in his life must be venerated, must be honored. We each have a right to grieve our losses and no one has a right to take them form us, even for the best of intentions. Christ’s pain, symbolized in the crown of thorns -- believers say -- was redemptive. St Louis built a beautiful chapel to enshrine that crown of thorns. The pain of loss is the thorn that crowns the adopted experience. Adoptive parents do well not to try to bandage over such a deep wound – they will never succeed – but to enshrine it by adherence to the truth come what may.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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