Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Am Who I Am - PACT SF, CA 1998

PACT Conference
San Francisco, California
March 7, 1998
I Am Who I Am
Thomas F. Brosnan

Good morning. My name is Tom Brosnan. I'm an adopted person and a Roman Catholic Priest. I am currently Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York, a largely Hispanic congregation. For the previous 12 years I had been the only Anglo living in the largest Korean Catholic Parish in the United States located in Flushing Queens -- the Korea Town of New York. I've lived and studied in Korea and Santo Domingo picking up enough Korean and Spanish to get by. I learned that I loved to languages in high school when I began to study Latin and Greek and Russian. I often find myself these days taking a few hours a week to walk the boardwalk and have a bite to eat in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach where ninety percent of the people you meet speak Russian as their first language. Foreign languages have been my hobby over the years. These interests and experiences helped me to realize that adoption has been at the center of my life, whether I had known it or not. You see,I sum up my adoption experience this way: feeling most comfortable in places I don't belong.

First a few disclaimers. I am no adoption expert, but simply someone who has been touched by adoption and wishes to reflect honestly on that experience. I want to believe that the Divine Providence is manifest in every turn of events, even those that at first seem to have occurred so randomly. But the adoption experience challenges that belief. And thus, the very fact of adoption becomes an issue of faith; it is a spiritual dilemma. I'm reminded of the scene in the movie Forrest Gump, when he has just buried his wife and is musing at her grave: "I dunno if mama was right," Forrest says, "if we each have a destiny, or we're just floatin' 'round accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it's both, maybe both happenin' at the same time." Destiny or accident, providence or chance: these are the questions which every human being seeks to answer. And, in this, adoptees are no different; but, some times, they become the pioneers on that frontier where such questions are voiced. It is a frontier where the quest for identity -- self-knowledge -- spans the psychological, the spiritual, and the physical elements that marvelously contribute to create the human being.

The theme of this conference is I AM WHO I AM. That's a wonderful phrase reminding some of us of the great revelation that Judaism has offered the world through the pages of Exodus (in Hebrew called the Book of Names) a story about the adventures of another adoptee -- Moses. As Moses stands before the burning bush and asks the divine voice to identify himself, divinity reveals his sacred name -- the Tetragrammaton -- its pronunciation lost millennia ago and now rendered in translation by many scholars as I AM WHO AM. That's a strange grammatical construction, of course, lending to the mystery surrounding the divine. Language itself, and especially syntax -- which is the placement of subject and verb and object within a sentence -- helps linguists to chart the family tree of languages. Syntax helps identify the close affinity of otherwise seemingly unrelated languages like, for example, Korean and Finnish. Or syntax can identify Basque, the language of northern Spain, as unrelated to any known language -- a lonely isolate, a wallflower, surrounded by all those languages we call romance tongues.

Syntax is what makes a language understandable. We know something is wrong if we take the words of one language and try to fit them into the syntax of another. Here's an example: Latin is an inflected language meaning that the nouns change their ending according to the function they serve in the sentence. Thus when a noun acts as subject it has a different ending than when it acts as object. This means in inflected languages like Latin, word order is not so important. If you wanted to say in Latin that the dog bit the boy, you can place the words in any order and it would be understandable. But you can't do that in English, because it is not inflected meaning that nouns in English do not change their endings according to function. Word order, then, becomes all important in English. If you changed the word order in English you would mistakenly convey the idea that it was the boy that bit the dog. Maybe this is all rather tangential and boring, so let me pout it another way.

Let's take our conference theme: I AM WHO I AM. I is the subject. There's a relative or interrogatory pronoun -- who. And a form of the verb to be -- am. Put together in a phrase that may remind Jews and Christians of the sacred Tetragrammaton revealed to Moses through the burning bush -- I AM WHO AM. I'd like to suggest that all these ingredients -- subjects, interrogatory pronouns, verbs are analogous to the adoption experience. After all the great mystery in adoption centers around the subject I and the mysterious reference to the question who all built up on the verb to be, called by grammarians the copulating verb. Yep, you guessed, grammar, like adoption, is all about copulation, about sex, and mystery, and divine providence.

Each individual story, after all, is an epic adventure in its own right, seeking to embrace the theme of today's conference "I AM WHO I AM." So, instead of trying to be scholastic about it, permit me to relate a few stories--some mythical, some historical--but all very true.

Story #1:
The quest for identity can be understood as the experience of belonging and not-belonging. I can see there are a few baby boomers in the audience. Maybe you remember the Patty Duke Show. I'm not even sure if that was the title of the show, and I must confess that I cannot remember a single plot, though I must have seen every one. But I sure do remember the opening scene each week when Patty Duke would begin her routine before the full length mirror as the credits rolled, challenging her reflection to follow each gesture and movement, until we realize that there is no mirror--the reflection is her identical cousin.

Patty Duke sees herself in her cousin. There is a genetic connection that is made on some unconscious level enabling her and her identical cousin to guess each other's next move. I think this is symbolic of our unconscious experience of biological family, of genetic bonds that we experience in countless ways--in a gesture, a word, a glance, an appetite, a desire, the way we walk, even the way we experience emotion. The experience of genetic identity, what I might call the Patty Duke experience, is what the adopted have lost. I want to suggest to you today that we cannot underestimate the impact of that loss on the individual.

Before I found my birthmother I discovered that her brother was a Jesuit priest who had died and was buried at Georgetown University. One Saturday I decided to drive down to Georgetown and visit his grave. I rang the door of the Jesuit residence. By chance or coincidence or divine providence the priest who answered the door was Fr. Frank Dineen who not only knew my uncle but had actually grown up with him in Philadelphia. We talked all day, and after dinner, Fr. Dineen invited me to his room to look at some old photographs of my uncle. As I entered the room it suddenly dawned on me that this would be the first time in my then 33 years of life that I was going to see somebody related to me by blood. It would be a bitter-sweet experience: a joy to see my flesh and blood; a reminder of what I had missed. I knew in a deeply instinctual way what the recent film Secrets & Lies, conveyed so well : that you really can miss what you've never had.

Story #2:
Listen to this nineteenth century Hindu fable. It's about a small tiger cub orphaned in the jungle. A passing herd of goats takes pity on the cub and adopts him into their herd. The goats bring the young tiger up to speak their language, emulate their ways, eat their food, and, in general, to believe that he, the tiger cub, is a goat himself. The goats after all speak no tiger language and can only teach what they knew. One day a king tiger emerges from the jungle and gives a mighty roar. All the goats run away in fear. But the tiger cub stays--afraid, and somehow, not afraid. From a distance the king tiger studies the young cub as he nibbles at the grass in the manner of a goat. The king tiger finally approaches and asks the young tiger what is meant by this behavior, but in response the young tiger can only bleat nervously in the manner of a goat and continue nibbling at the grass. Perplexed, the king tiger bends down and picks up the tiger cub by the nape of the neck, carrying him to a nearby pond. He forces the cub to look at their two reflections side by side, and hopes for him to draw a suitable conclusion. But this attempt at proper identification fails. The king tiger then sees a deer in the distance, and with dazzling speed the king tiger slays the deer. He brings the carcass to the tiger cub and makes him eat of his first piece of raw meat. At first the young tiger recoils from the unfamiliar taste of the blood and flesh, but then, as he eats more and begins to feel it warming his blood, the truth gradually becomes clear to him. Lashing his tail, and digging his claws into the ground, the young beast raises his head high, and the jungle trembled at the sound of his exultant roar.

In 1984 my bishop asked me if I would consider going to Korea to study the language and culture. I readily accepted what was always a secret desire--to live in Asia. It was while I was in Korea that I made a firm decision to begin searching for my birth mother. Travelling to the other side of the world, living with culture shock, somehow ignited in me, not only the desire, but a deeply felt need, to search. I came home from my first three months in Asia with one though in mind: "I must do this search; I have to find out where I come from!"

Some opponents of open records in adoption claim that records should remain sealed in order to protect the adoptee from some unpleasant truth he might find when he opens that Pandora's box. Or, these opponents might say, that it is cruel to offer the possibility of a successful reunion when many times the birth parents do not want to be found and thus cause a second relinquishment- trauma in the adoptee. I would respectfully suggest to all those who want to protect me from any unpleasantness that, although you and the law may continue to refer to me as an adopted child, I am no longer a child and quite willing to take that chance. Indeed to prevent me legally from embarking on that journey is to keep me a child, a minor, unemancipated -- all synonyms, of course, for the slave -- which is precisely the effect of maintaining sealed records.

Story #3:
I suspect that everyone in this room today knows of Erik Erikson and his important contribution to the knowledge of human development by his investigation of developmental crises surrounding identity formation. Indeed, it was Erikson who invented the term "identity-crisis." But I wonder how many know of his own crisis of identity and feelings of not-belonging.

"Erikson's mother, a Danish Jew, never told Erik the true story of his origins, wanting him to believe that her husband, the pediatrician Theodor Homberger, was his father. As a boy growing up 'blond, blue-eyed, and flagrantly tall' in Germany, Erik thought it strange that his father was short and dark. He was acutely aware that he was referred to as a goy in his father's temple, while to his schoolmates he was a Jew. He thought of himself as a 'foundling'." Erikson related this experience to Betty Jean Lifton which she recounts in her book, which I encourage you to read -- Journey of the Adopted Self.

"Erik was in the Black Forest watching an old peasant woman milking a cow, when she looked up and said, 'Do you know who your father is?' Erik was taken by surprise. It was the first time anyone had said such a thing to him. He knew she must have noticed how different he looked from his father. Like Oedipus, he rushed to his mother to ask for the truth, (but) was given a half-truth. She admitted he had been adopted by Homberger, whom she married on the day Erik turned three. She spoke vaguely about having been abandoned by her former Danish-Jewish husband in Copenhagen while she was pregnant, and going to Germany to give birth. Sensing her discomfort, and responding to his own anxiety, Erikson submerged his need to know more about his father at that time. In his adolescence he would hear rumors that his father was not his mother's former husband, but rather a Danish aristocrat whose name her brothers had sworn never to reveal. When Erik journeyed to America he renamed himself on his application for citizenship, calling himself Erik Erik-son. Unhelped by mother or uncles in identifying his father, Erik had settled to create himself." The search for identity and belonging can indeed be a very creative and fruitful process.

I met my father just after I found my mother some 15 years ago now. Through the years he has always denied paternity. Although I am nearly convinced that he is my father, it remains a loose end in my life. I would very much like him to submit to a DNA test to determine things once and for all. It would bring me, I am sure, a certain peace of mind. Some say this open-ended experience is reason enough to prevent attempted reunions. But I see it as evidence of just the opposite. It is a good example of what it means to live not-knowing. At least I know that it is very possible he is my father. The search for knowledge, especially self-knowledge, is never easy -- but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted. When I decide, like Erikson, to bring it to closure, not because others tell me I should -- but because I want to, then my decision to pursue or abandon that confirmation will be a mature decision, affirming and self-creating.

Story #4:
What happens when the adopted are so utterly convinced by parents or social workers or church authorities that their need to know is either wrong or evil or immature?
Psychologists tell us it is normal for children to question whether, indeed, they really do belong in their families. Referred to as the romance fantasy, children often claim they are adopted, when if fact they are not. For the adopted, however, there is no fantasy; he must somehow reconcile the reality. He cannot, however, reach the same conclusion of his non-adopted counterpart--namely, that this is indeed his birth family--without incurring psychological damage. This points to the obvious, though not widely accepted truth, that families created through adoption are different from families created through biology. This is not to say they are better or worse, but only that they are different.

A few years ago a priest friend of mine went to visit a home for emotionally disturbed adolescents in Brooklyn. The priest walked in the front door and heard the Irish ballad, Danny Boy, being sung by a young man sitting in the living room, his back to the priest. After the boy finished, the priest walked over to him, slapping him on the back, thanking him for such a beautiful rendition of the ballad. The young man turned quickly, revealing an Asian face. The priest instinctively laughed, "I'm sorry," he said, "I thought you were Irish." The boy's eyes filled with tears and he shouted back in anger: "I am Irish," he said, "my name's Michael O'Brien."

John Courtney Murray, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian America has yet produced, placed identity at the core of what we mean by salvation:
"Self-understanding," he said, "is the necessary condition of a sense of self-identity and self-confidence whether in the case of an individual or in the case of a people...the peril is great...the complete loss of one's identity, is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms, it is insanity." (2x)

As I mentioned I was reunited with my birthmother some15 years ago. She died four years ago, but during the years we knew each other I learned a lot about her and myself. She did not want me to find her. Too many complication s-- too much to explain, she said. She really didn't want me in her life. She told me so. I'm glad she was honest. Yet,, once she told her other children about me, I was always included -- on her insistence -- in all the family functions. But there was always an element of denial. My mother was never close to her own family, but very close to her husband's family. (He had died before we met). She could never bring herself to tell them about who I really was, about how she got pregnant out of wedlock, about how she had a baby before marrying their brother.

So at my sister's wedding, and at other functions to follow, she introduced me as the distant cousin from New York. My mother's in-laws were not so docile though, and through the years no doubt suspected something. At my mother's wake her sister-in-law came up to me and told me how much I reminded her of my mother's brother -- though he was so long dead and from what I gather not too similar in appearance. There's was something in her voice though that hinted at a deeper knowledge. She was, after all, the family historian -- her hobby was genealogy. I often wonder where she would put me on that complicated family tree -- or as Joyce Pavao might say - in that family orchard adoptee's should give up on the single tree model of family roots.

Story #5:
Like for everyone else, an adoptee's search for identity is a process. And one inevitable part of that process is the uncomfortable -- and at times ugly -- element of anger. Ugly, especially, when the anger crosses the line into rage, everyone gets uncomfortable. And that's where history's most famous adoptee comes to help -- Moses. Moses' importance to Judeo-Christian religion and western civilization can never be underestimated. His contribution so enormous we tend to forget or even gloss over his core experience in life -- being a Hebrew raised Egyptian.

The story is only mentioned in passing in the Book of Exodus -- the story of how his parents relinquished him to the river in the attempt to save him from Pharaoh's wrath. And how ironically, or providentially, Pharaoh's infertile daughter draws him out of the river and raises him as her own. We can only surmise, like the Jewish legends, about his upbringing. We can, like the Jewish legends, conclude that Pharaoh's daughter is a righteous gentile for adopting Moses. Or we can wonder about his upbringing as we read of Moses' rage as he saw the Egyptian beating the Hebrew. With references every so often to serial killers who were adopted, we might wonder if Moses' adoption experience were not somehow the source of his rageful murder of the Egyptian.

When I was in the midst of my search I went to the Catholic Home Bureau in Manhattan, from where I was adopted, to ask for my name and the name of my mother and father. As Sister Una, the nun long in charge of adoptions for the Archdiocese of New York, sat behind her desk all smug and omniscient, looking at the file that contained my name and my heritage, the names of my mother and father, and who so condescendingly with a saccharine and affected compassion, refused to offer information -- I knew I could have killed, so much rage did I feel. Over reaction you say -- evidence of emotional or mental imbalance? Perhaps -- but who has more of a right to my name than me. The Catholic Church writes beautiful instructions about the dignity of the human being, how he has a right, a divine right to know his family -- yet steadfastly refuses what must by all standards be acknowledged as information pertaining primarily to me and refusing to let me see. I felt rage -- but I know it is a righteous rage.

Back to Moses. Even his name is mysterious. Some say it is from the Hebrew meaning "to draw out" -- as in, he was drawn out of the river. But many see the clear connection with Egyptian names: Ramses - or Ra moses, meaning son of the god Ra. Or Thutmose - tut moses, meaning son of the god Tut. Later Hebrew editors embarrassed at this seeming extent of stolen identity slash off the prefix indicating Egyptian deity and render him just a suffix - Moses.

It's that name which calls to him from the burning bush atop the mountain. "Moses, Moses," the voice from the bush calls. Who are you, Moses asks. And then -- what is your name? Identity is always at the heart of revelation. Divinity answers the question. "I am the god of your fathers."

I wonder if this response can ever be fully understood and appreciated ? We have become so familiar with these words -- even the biblical writers have used these words (and the words to follow) as the standard identification of God throughout the Hebrew scriptures. It becomes a handle for the One true God, the standard qualifier to the Hebrew DEITY. But when it is heard through the ears of Moses, the adoptee, it takes on a fresh, vivid and jarring meaning. Because what did Moses, the adoptee, think the moment he heard those words: I am the god of your fathers. Let's imagine. In that millisecond of syntax before the divine voice continues, what goes through Moses' mind: which father, he must wonder, my Egyptian father or my Hebrew father? Does this voice belong to Ra or Horus or Isis? Or is it the voice of the Hebrew's God

"I am the god of your fathers," the voice reveals - and then, the watershed revelation: "I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob." Can you feel something stir in Moses' soul? Can you feel the tears well up from deep down? This moment of revelation is the unsealing of the Book of Names - this is Moses' exodus -- his interior exodus -- coming to the promised land of true identity. In that moment of divine revelation a twofold truth is unveiled. Not only does divinity reveal his sacred name, but he reveals Moses true identity as the son of Hebrews, not Egyptians. In truth that burns but does not consume, Moses finally knows -- with divine certitude -- who he really is and where his destiny lies. All that follows -- in what we believers have called salvation history, flows from this single event -- the revelation to an adoptee of his genetic ancestry.

Before Moses, or any of us can know the one true God, we must come to a knowledge of self. Indeed our pilgrimage to the sacred can only begin with a journey to the self. I AM WHO AM, the sacred Tetragrammaton, hinges on the humble self acceptance embodied in this conference's logo: I am who I am; or as Popeye might put it: I am what I am and that's all that I am.

I started this presentation talking about language, about syntax -- word order in sentences, grammatical functions -- how adoption is something like copulating verbs, actions having consequences. I talked about how the adoption experience is like a journey into mystery. I made a connection between the theme of this conference and the very name of God. In other words to say that adoption, like life, is about religion, sex and mystery. Let me conclude by trying to drive the point home through a story gleaned form my adopted Irish ancestry.

The Irish pride themselves on their ability to tell a good story. And there's a legend amongst the Irish about a group of Irish writers who one time got together and figured out the formula for all great literature. Their ideas eventually filtered down into grade schools throughout Ireland. And so it happened that, in a high school classroom, a teacher with these novel ideas told her class the simple formula for all great literature. "Class," she said, "you have to incorporate into your writing these three elements: religion, sex, and mystery. Your finished work will either sink or swim on how well you have managed to meld these into your story." The teacher then told the class to write a short story incorporating religion, sex and mystery. "You have one hour to finish," she said. "Begin." Not even three minutes had passed when the teacher looked up and saw a student gazing out the window. "Sean, why aren't you writing?" "I've already finished," he said. "Finished? How could you be finished already, writing a story about religion, sex and mystery? Stand up and read what you wrote." Sean stood, cleared his throat, and read, "My God, she's pregnant. Who did it?"

Adoption, like good literature, like life, is also about God, and sex, and mystery. I would like to suggest to you today -- in this beautiful city dedicated to the humble St Francis -- that humility is truth, and that the practice of adoption -- if it is to be truly in the best interests of the child -- must rest on truth and that lasting happiness is always and only a byproduct of truth.

I am who I am -- a phrase that can never be limited to either my adoptive or genetic inheritance but a mysterious interplay of both.

Thank you for your kind attention

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