Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dualism in Adoption - St John's Univ 2000

Ninth Annual Conference on
Multicultural and Multi-Ethnic Issues in the Behavioral Sciences
St. John’s University
Jamaica, New York
21 October 2000

Dualism in Adoption:
The Spirit and the Body

Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan

First, permit me to sincerely thank Dr. Rafael Javier for organizing and hosting this conference on the adoption journey. Spurred on by a wonderful adoptive dad, Mr. Bruce Kellogg, Dr. Javier is offering mental health professionals through this conference a challenge to re-think their assessment of the adoption experience in the life of the triad member or perhaps better put -- to begin to seriously consider the profound impact adoption has in the lives of all whom it touches. Like most, psychologists and social workers prefer to see adoption in its many positive and admirable aspects, the chief one being to provide a good home a child who needs one – and we hope this conference will affirm the institution of adoption in just that precisely. But it is also our hope that this conference will offer a glimpse into the full picture of the adoption experience, including the undeniable fact that adoption is always founded on the experience of loss, that for some reason, good or bad, a child was separated from his mother and father and is need of a home. This conference also seeks to begin to explore how that experience of relinquishment, displacement and migration into another family affects the development of the adopted. And, on a religious and spiritual level, perhaps even to contemplate how adoption affects the answering of that age-old question of the relationship between nature and nurture, heredity and environment, body and soul.

Also, a disclaimer is in order since many of you know infinitely more about psychology than I. I’m not a mental health professional. I’m not a psychologist, social worker, or pastoral counselor. I offer my remarks today simply as a reflection on what it means to be an adopted person and share with you some insights I have gained from others along the way. I present a view of my particular journey and hope it will resonate in some way, even if it be ever so faintly, with yours – whether you are adopted or not.

Unlike the very professional presentations you have heard and will hear at this conference, my talk is simply about telling stories – mostly about me. Now that’s fun for me (it’s therapy really), but I’m not so confident it will be as much fun for you and so in order not to lose you to a Cesar Salad or some Arroz con Pollo I think I’ll depend on a tried-and-true method and take the advice of the great Irish story-tellers who long ago, maybe in heaven, came up with the three all-important ingredients that make a good story: religion, sex and mystery. Their formula filtered down through al the schools of Ireland and one day in a tenth grade classroom the teacher told her class to write a story incorporating those three ingredients of religion, sex and mystery so their story would be interesting and worthwhile. “Ready class,” the teacher says. “Begin.” Well, not even a minute has passed and the teacher sees Sean in the back row looking out the window. “Why aren’t you writing, Sean?” she says. “I’m finished,” he says. “Finished,” she says, “finished writing a story about religion, sex and mystery already? Stand up and read us what you wrote.” Sean stands, clears his throat, and reads: “My God, she’s pregnant, who did it?”

My story is about religion sex and mystery too. It’s about what happened in a boarding house on St Paul Street in Baltimore Maryland in the spring of 1952 after a young woman had come to Baltimore form her native Philadelphia leaving what she perceived as an oppressive situation with her mother. The young woman’s father had died young a few years previous and her mother had to become a domestic in order to support the family. She moved into the servants’ quarters in a physician’s house in suburban Philadelphia. The young girl finished high school and then went off to Baltimore to be closer to her older brother. The young woman gets a job and is introduced to Mrs. Kennerly’s boarding house connected with the Peabody Conservatory of Music. All the students are male save one and she needs a roommate. The young woman and her roommate Sophia become good friends and the young woman and her roommate become part of a group of friends who live under Mrs. Kennerly’s strict rules. The young woman falls in love with a music student from Toronto. As the semester ends after her boyfriend has gone back home, the young woman discovers she is pregnant. At first she tells only her roommate her secret. Later she travels to Toronto to ask, to plead, but the young man says, that for religious reasons, he cannot, he will not marry her. She returns, confides her dilemma to another music student from Virginia. This gallant young man offers to marry her. No doubt very confused and desperate, she says yes. The boarding house gang throws a bridal shower, though no one knows she is pregnant save Sophia and the gallant Virginian. For some unknown reason they call the wedding off. The young woman then confides her secret to her brother and he arranges for her acceptance at a Catholic Maternity Home in NYC. There on January 10, 1953 at the Misericordia Hospital then located in Manhattan the young woman gives birth to her first born and then relinquishes him to the closed adoption system through the Catholic Home Bureau of the Archdiocese of New York. Within a period of a little over a year, the young woman has left family, job and friends; she has given birth, surrendered to adoption, returned home, courted, married and become pregnant with her second of seven children.

I was placed in foster care with an Italian family named Vesciano in Queens NY. After six months I was placed in my Irish adoptive parents’ home in Brooklyn and adopted within a year. I grew up in Brooklyn, an only child, living in a row house with my parents and my mother’s parents. After 33 years I decided to search and was able to find my birth mother and her family in Baltimore. I met my birth father in Toronto though he still denies paternity. My mother died some 6 years ago after I had known her for ten years. I am in reunion with my six other half siblings who live in Baltimore. My adoptive father died three years ago and my mother still lives in the same house in Brooklyn where she has lived some 60 of her 80 years. I should also mention that I am a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn New York. I was ordained in 1981 under the old Canon Law which forbade illegitimates from becoming priests without special dispensation. As a bastard I received that dispensation in the furtive manner which is indicative of all secretive bureaucracies and of closed adoption in particular.

The story of adoption, I’d like to suggest, is also about God and sex and mystery. It’s about sex, of course, about steamy windows in the back seat of a car, about what happens when the birthparents do it; and what doesn’t happen when the infertile couple does it. It’s about steamy windows in the back seat of a car, teenage romance or illicit affairs, about missed periods and taking temperatures and undergoing modern technologies that probe and press your body and with cup in hand looking at magazine pictures in the sanitized room of a fertility clinic. It’s about telling your child she didn’t come from your body, it’s about the pain you feel years down the road when your adopted children have children of their own and that feeling of loss raises its head again. It’s about how the adopted come to terms with being lost and found, belonging in two places, struggling to look at the events of relinquishment and adoption as either the result of accidental whim or intelligent providence. Like Forest Gump said musing over his wife’s grave: “I dunno if mama was right or not, if we each have a destiny or we’re just floatin’ round accidental-like in a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both, maybe both happenin’ at the same time.” Adoption is not only a chapter in a book, it’s the thread that runs through the whole story –adoption is a life-long event for birthparents, adoptive parents and the adopted.

Sadly, since the 1930s in America the admirable institution of adoption has been infected with what we might call a dualist mode of thought. Dualism is that ancient mode of thought that perceives reality as an either/or certainty, fabricating a schism between body and soul, matter and spirit, nature and nurture, heredity and environment. Dualist thinking infected adoption practice in America from the1930s on -- sealing once-open records, falsifying birth certificates, erasing identities. Ignorant of the powerful effects of genetics both psychology and religion would propagate the great myth in adoption practice – namely, that love can eradicate biology and convince adoptive parents, ever so perfidiously, that love would want to.

An example of dualist thinking can be seen in the history of Christian spirituality, in particular, in what are called the Christological controversies – debates about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth. The orthodox position maintained that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. Dualist thinking generated many nuanced disagreements with this position. One group believed that Jesus was indeed fully divine, but only appeared to be human. In the Gnostic gospels this dualist agenda is evident when it claims that Jesus never blinked, and he never left footprints when he walked. In dualist thinking, matter is evil, only spirit is good.

It didn’t take long for these matters of faith to filter into the arena of morality and ethics. We need only to think of the Janseenists in France or the Puritans who formed the foundation of American culture. Hawthorne, a direct descendent of the Puritans, captures the dangers of dualist thinking so well, doesn’t he, in The Scarlet Letter. Or, more recently, in the beautifully executed film, Babbette’s Feast, about a great French chef who finds refuge with religious fundamentalists in a fishing village in Denmark, you might agree with me that it is the same theme told again, only now through the metaphor of food and drink. Dualist thinking abhors the physical and makes all bodily functions suspect. It denies the goodness of our connection to matter and robs us of the glory of being a rational animal. Remember the great line from that film Chariots of Fire when the Olympic runner is asked how it feels to be so fast. He says it’s essentially a religious experience. Referring to the divine he states: “When I run I feel his pleasure.” Indeed, as Genesis says, “when God looked upon all that he had made he saw it was good.”

The desire, however, to separate body and soul, to settle for an either/or answer in a complicated world is the essence of dualist thinking. There’s a powerful attack on such notions recorded in the gospels the story about the apostle Thomas who is absent the day the others see the risen Jesus. It’s from his refusal to believe their story that he is forever known as Doubting Thomas. “I’ll never believe it,” Thomas tells them, “without probing the nailprints in his hands, without putting my finger in the nail-marks and my hand into his side.” It’s a powerful scene because it’s so graphic, even vulgar – imagine probing the wounds of someone else’s body. But it’s meant to be so, I think. Thomas, you see, doesn’t want to settle for a belief in ghosts. He’s telling the others by his doubt that if they want to settle for disembodied spirits that’s their business, but he wants a hands-on experience. When Jesus appears again he commands Thomas, the one whose faith is born of doubt, to thrust his hands into his side.

Ancient peoples believed that names carry the person they symbolize in some fashion. And even for us modern westerners have to admit, I think, that names carry a formidable psychological power. Believe all revelation is about identity and names are at the heart of revelation. Take the Book of Exodus, for example. In Hebrew it is not called the Book of Exodus, but the Book of Names. And in the story of Moses, the greatest adoptee of history, it is through the revelation of the divine name that Moses’ own identity is revealed. Remember as he approaches the burning bush Moses asks the voice to identify itself. The voice will eventually reveal the divine name, but that revelation will do no good Moses does not hear first a confirmation of his own true identity. The voice answers: “I am the God of your fathers.” What must have went through the mind of the adopted Moses in that millisecond of time but the question, which father, the God of my Egyptian fathers or my Hebrew fathers. And then the words I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob.” In that answer a twofold revelation occurs, the name of the divine and Moses’ true identity. Then and only then can Moses embrace the destiny that would so alter the course of human and what believers call salvation history.

Control of names can be a source of oppression. Take the example of Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 through 1945. One of the ways Japan subjugated Korea was to force all Koreans to adopt Japanese names. (Remember that Koreans as Confucian people would, with profound obeisance, venerate the nameplate of the deceased – that’s how they venerated the memory of their ancestors). In the 1936 Olympics a Korean won the gold medal, but he received it standing beneath the Japanese flag, his Japanese name printed and broadcast throughout the world. When Korea hosted the 1988 Olympics, that same gold-medal winner climbed the summit to light Olympic flame, and as he did so his Korean name began to be chanted as if by the entire nation. Names indeed are powerful symbols of invisible realities, sacraments of the person they represent.

I named you for my brother, my mother told me. Her brother the Jesuit priest who arranged for her journey to New York where she would give me birth and relinquish me here before returning to Baltimore and, as the nuns in the maternity home told her and so many others like her – to put it all behind her and get on with her life.

Dualism must rely on lies to maintain its sway. And lies need secrecy. That’s why the closed system of adoption is built on lies. In most of these United States the adopted are forbidden access to their original birth certificates. They are the only citizens who have no right to know the names with which they were born and the names of the parents who gave them birth. Sadly, religious institutions have followed this example. Certain Catholic bishops, like those in New Jersey and Maryland, have been the chief opponents of legislation to give adoptees access to their original birth certificates. From one side of their mouths these bishops declare that the dark secret must be kept, because a mother has a right to privacy from her own child. From the other side of their mouths they condemn those who use the same logic to argue for abortion. And falsified baptismal certificates continue to be issued. St. Augustine, no stranger to the effects of illegitimate birth, once said that “the worst lie is that which religion deploys for its own advance.”

Akin to bishops but more in the style of a medieval pope Dr. Laura Schlessinger daily pronounces on ethical questions, providing quick black and white answers to complex moral dilemmas. She has recently been challenged, thank God, but unfortunately not for her views on adoption. I tuned in recently when an adoptee called asking if it were morally acceptable for her to have identifying information for medical reasons. Dr. Laura, in a tone of voice that I can only interpret as meaning you ungrateful bastard, shouts across the airwaves you adoptees are liars. You say you want information for medical reasons but you are really looking to find your birth families. The next call (the very next one mind you) a woman asks Dr. Laura if she should tell her oldest son that her husband is not his biological father. Why bother him with such unimportant facts, Dr Laura says. Dualist thinking makes such distinctions. Healthy means to be whole, integral – to tell the truth. The boy should know that is stepfather is not his biological father and yes, Dr. Laura, I’ll tell the truth -- medical information was not the main reason I wanted information. But the question to ask is: why would I think I would have to.

Simone Weil, that perceptive observer of reality said "it is secrecy that is everywhere the soul of bureaucracy. It is the condition of all privilege and consequently of all oppression.”

Oppression, physical and psychological possession of human beings, can happen when we seek an either/or solution to problems. “An estimated 100,000 Australian Aborigines make up Australia’s so-called lost generation,” Time Magazine reported recently. “Under a government policy that ran from 1910 through 1971 (that’s right, I said 1971) as many 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)when in 1858, while still the temporal ruler of the Papal States, he sent his police to the Jewish home of the Mortara Family and took their six-year old son Edgardo from them -- 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 this action, which enraged the European community, eventually caused the fall of the pope from temporal power. Some ten years after the event, with Edgardo at his side, Pius IX met with representatives of the Jewish community. The pope addressed Edgardo: “My son,” he said, “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 the 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 become a priest. He would take the religious name Pius in honor of the pope. He would be the first to testify for 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 being gassed in a concentration camp – a certain fate because, despite his baptism, Jewish blood still ran through his veins.

Here’s a challenge for you researchers: why is a seemingly disproportionate loyalty toward adoptive parents such a major factor in the psyche of the adopted and how does it play out in their lives? And why is it that so few male adoptees search for their biological families. Perhaps it has something to do with the psyche that orphans manifest – perhaps a hint lies in a scene from Flaubert's Madame Bovary, when Emma Bovary “replaced her maid with Felicite, 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, and 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 said her prayers.” The unconscious fear of rejection looms large in the cellular memory of the adopted, because it is utterly true that the blessing that every adoption may become is always founded on the horror of relinquishment – the separation of child from mother – the orphan experience.

The theologian von Balthasar offers insight here about how the religious or spiritual dimension of our lives are intimately bound up with the physical: von Balthasar says “that the religious question arises for man in the primordial moment in which his I is awakened by the smile of his mother.” Dr. Alice Miller, a researcher of early infant development, notes “that without the mother’s concerned gaze the child could remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”

What happens though if the mirror is cracked and our self-perception hard to establish? When I first began working in a Korean parish I received a phone call from an Anglo woman who was frantic. She called to ask me to visit her 16 year old son who had attempted suicide. She was not a parishioner and I asked her why she called me. She said she just found the number for the Korean parish in the book. She said she was white but her son had been adopted from Korea when he was six. She did not know me or my story. I visited Andrew in the hospital. The psychiatrist said he did not respond to anyone. I tried to engage him in a conversation, asking questions, but no response. Finally, frustrated, I just sat down and told him my story of growing up adopted and my search for birth parents. Andrew started to talk and eventually we became very good friends. During his stay in the hospital Andrew had to participate in group therapy. He was not responsive at all within the group and the psychiatrist asked for the therapist to give me a call since Andrew seemed to open up to me. The therapist asked if I wouldn’t mind telling him how I engaged Andrew. I told the therapist that I was adopted and simply shared my feelings about it with Andrew. The therapist went berserk on the phone incredibly defensive saying this had nothing to do with the fact that Andrew was adopted etc (this, by the way, is not an uncommon reaction among mental health professionals). I simply asked him if he didn’t think that an Asian boy growing up in a white family (which was a very good loving family) being the only Asian in his elementary and high school classes – didn’t he think that at the very least it might have had an effect on Andrew’s self-perception. I’m happy to tell you that when Andrew was 19 I took him back to Korea for a visit for the first time since he had come here at 6. He began to date (Asian girls of course) and just married three months ago.

Self-perception is a strange duck. What is obvious to the observer might not be so obvious to the observed. I can never forget the story a priest told me once about visiting a home for emotionally disturbed adolescents. The priest walked into the home while a young man was singing the sadly beautiful Irish ballad Danny Boy. The young man had his back to the priest and when he had finished the priest went to thank him the boy turned revealing his Asian face. The priest instinctively laughed: I thought you were Irish, he said. The boy’s eyes filled with tears and he shouted back in anger I am Irish my name’s Michael O’Brien.”

The great American theologian John Courtney Murray said that “self-understanding is the necessary condition of a sense of self-identity and self-confidence…the complete loss of one’s identity, is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.” Let me repeat: the complete loss of one’s identity is, in theology, the definition of hell. In diminished forms, it is insanity.

The adopted I believe are emblematic of the rest of humanity in the spiritual quest for belonging and truth. “All journeys,” Chesterton would say “are about coming home.” And true religion the priest von Balthasar would write “is the rebinding of previously separated parts.” Spirituality is the work of belonging, attempting to live in the here and now, all the while restless “to arrive at where we started,” TS Eliot mused, “and know the place for the first time.” I would submit the adopted, the lost and found of this world, are always in search of that place -- whether they know it or not.

Being this is a Catholic University and being that I’ve already let you know how I feel about the beatification of Pius IX, let me invoke another pope who can say better than I the importance of self-identity in our lives. From John Paul II’s recent encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason): “In both East and West we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded – as it must – within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness. The admonition Know Thyself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings,” that is, as those who “know themselves.” God has placed in the human heart,” the pope writes with the full force of his apostolic authority,” a desire to know the truth.”
The pope declares this desire is of divine origin and we can extrapolate that the right to know the truth of one’s origins is thus an inalienable right. How can any government or religion, any official or bishop to stand in the way of that pursuit, to keep secret the very information that enables a person to become more to know himself, which means to become a human being.

The pope’s remarks are borne out in our greatest literature and religious myths. The loss of true identity is behind the story of Moses; the quest for home the epic of Odysseus in his return to Ithaca; the same themes played out again in the great American myth about Dorothy and her relationship to Oz and Kansas. Here’s another myth, perhaps not of such high caliber as those I mentioned, but a favorite of mine. I remember as a boy coming home from school each day changing into my comfortable clothes and turning on my grandmother’s TV and waiting for the reruns of Superman. Hoping, in those pre-VCR days, that they would replay that very first episode when Superman had been ejected (for his own good of course) from his home planet of Krypton and landing on earth in a field by night where he would be adopted by the kindly Kents. Superman, you know, had two identities -- but he never suffered from schizophrenia. His x-ray vision would work whether he was posing as Clark Kent or as Superman. But, of course, the one thing that could get to him was kryptonite, the piece of his home planet. That mart of the myth intrigues me as an adoptee. It is only when he is in the proximity o kryptonite is he weakened. Or should we understand rather that when he home comes near, Superman becomes vulnerable. When I was to meet my birthmother for the first time I drove to Baltimore from New York and we had a long lunch, talking about her other children and my life. When I got back in the car to return to New York I suddenly realized something that scared me -- I felt nothing. I was like the 5,000 year-old Iceman found a few years back in the Alps -- hard cold no emotion escaping. But that was really my whole life until that point – after searching and finding I, like the photos of the discovery of Iceman, was emerging from the ancient glacier. I was beginning to thaw, becoming more vulnerable, like Superman in contact with a piece of is home planet.

When the great Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila would have ecstatic visions, her nuns pestered her to teach them how they could achieve the heights of ecstasy like her. Teresa forcefully reminded them that never, “for never,” she said, “no matter how exalted the soul may be is anything more fitting than self-knowledge.”

Let me leave you with another favorite image of mine, the many-sided Odysseus, who after the Trojan war makes a trek through physical terrain and an inner psychological labyrinth in order to return to his home of Ithaca where his wife, Penelope, has long been waiting for him. Homer tells us Odysseus is nostalgic, in Greek literally meaning the pain for home. It’s interesting to note that the word for home in Greek is nostos, not unrelated to noos (consciousness or awareness). When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he finds Penelope engulfed by suitors. The main suitor is Antinous whom Odysseus kills in a scene which would rival in its bloody violence any modern day video. But don’t miss Homer’s meaning here. Odysseus slays Antinous, that is anti–noos -- the enemy’s name literally means against consciousness, against awareness, the bringer of illusion. It is only when Odysseus kills Antinous, the bringer of illusion, that he truly returns home.

And that’s why dualist thinking is always so dangerous – because it lulls us into illusion. Our task – what true spirituality and religion are all about – is to wake up from the illusion and embrace the truth. The danger that secrecy in adoption brings is the legal fiction it produces, the danger of coming to believe that the principle of asserted equivalence -- the as if in the statement the child will be as if born to you – is actually a truism. A family created by adoption is no better or worse than one created from biology, but it is different. That difference is the thing that needs to be acknowledged.

Did you see the recent movie The Sixth Sense? I liked it for two reasons. First, because of the title. The sixth sense is a term that was used not only for people who had extrasensory perception, but also in the 19th century for the physical reality of how the body situates itself in time and space. It would later be called proprioception – how your hand knows to place the glass of water right to your lips or the way your foot judges the height of a step without you looking. It’s a great metaphor for the search for self, the perception of who we are from the inside, the spiritual pilgrimage toward fulfillment. Well anyway in the movie, we witness Bruce Willis’ journey from illusion into truth. It is a painful journey, one where he is tempted to remain safe in an illusionary world, until after gradual small steps he hears a wedding ring drop from his sleeping wife’s hand, he sees it is his ring and the truth is made manifest. Then he is free and so is the little boy and so is his wife. It’s really the story of the catholic doctrine of purgatory I think where we are slowly and steadily released from illusion so we might embrace the truth. The adopted seek the truth of their origins and we need your help to free us from the purgatory of illusion, of not knowing.

All of us need to be courageous. And here’s where my namesake Thomas the Apostle helps out. You know Thomas is often referred to by the epithet the Twin or in Greek Didymus. Being an adopted Thomas and always seeking to discover more about me I looked up Didymus in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for the times when Didymus appeared. It appears only once, in the ok of Deuteronomy, where it is used not as a name for a person, but as a euphemism for a man’s testicles, or as the old Catholic Bible translated it – “a man’s secrets.” It then occurred to me that Thomas could be translated as the-one-with-balls. Too graphic perhaps but sometimes in order to fight the destructive influence of dualist thinking that views the body with such abhorrence we need to impress so that we might arrive at the proper balance between body and soul, matter and spirit, nature and nurture.

Thank you for your kind attention.


  1. Thankyou, this is so refreshing as a counternarrative. I am sick and tired of the one-eyed tyranny of the dominant discourse on adoption promoted by the adoption industry and adopters.