Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Search of a Verb - Traverse City 2003

9th Biennial Conference on Open Adoption
April 24-26, 2003
Traverse City, Michigan

In Search of a Verb
Father Tom Brosnan

The title of this presentation In Search of a Verb was assigned me by our illustrious leader. From the sound of it we could conclude that Jim Gritter is at heart a grammarian, a Mr. Chips of the adoption reform community. Perhaps Jim’s avocation is something like semiotics. If you’ve never heard of semiotics I assure you it has nothing to do with sperm banks or reproductive technologies; rather it’s about meaning and symbol. You see, although Jim is not an adopted person, he’s a seeker too – a seeker of ways to best serve those placed in his care through the practice of ethical adoption. He has concluded, in the manner of a grammarian, that both ethical adoption and open adoption are cognate; though, sad to say a generation later, the phenomenon called open adoption has been plagued by many bad translations. The title of this presentation, In Search of a Verb, intrigues me because language has been a kind of hobby for me from early on. Although I hardly speak even one language well (I’m from Brooklyn after all) I’ve studied Latin and Greek Russian, French, a very little Irish and German, as well as Chinese, Spanish and Korean.

Language and linguistic theory, I’d like to think, can provide apt metaphors for the adoption experience. You see, like language, we adopted are always changing and evolving, seeking our place, where we can make sense of whatever sentence, paragraph or story wherein we happen to find ourselves. At the risk, then, of boring you I’d like to begin this Linguistics and Adoption Class with a list of some linguistic terms that might apply to adoption. We begin with syntax: parts of speech like nouns, verbs and adjectives. It’s important for us adopted to realize, sometime in life, that we’re not just appendages to families. Although nouns and verbs might carry a lot of weight, a sentence would be pretty boring without some lusty adjectives, adverbs, and a gerund or two – even those small prepositions have a lot of weight placed on their usually one-syllabled existence. In other words, there’s a place and function for every part of speech. Sometimes because our nature our parts are not so easily understood we think of ourselves as an adverb when we’re really an adjective, a conjunction when we’re definitely an exclamation. And, like those relative pronouns, we need to trace our antecedents so we can know to whom the who is referring – no matter how far back in the sentence.

Then there are those phonemes and morphemes. Adoptees can morph a lot better than others, making ourselves into parts of speech we were not born to be. It seems this causes us some trouble in life when we ‘re taken for an adjective when we’re actually an adverb – some of us just settle for being labeled gerunds -- we’ll take what we can get. Sadly all too many of us remain those dangling participles way to late into life.
I’m reminded here of a woman I met in my first parish. I had mentioned in a Sunday sermon that I was adopted. After Mass the ninety-year old woman, Anna Kamien Grace, came up to me and whispered in my ear: “Oh Father, I’m an adopted child too.” Anna lived to be one-hundred-and-three, God bless her, and eventually told me her story: how her mother told her she was adopted on her wedding day. Anna told me the rage never really ever left her some seventy plus years later. And, of course, there’s the import of language in her story. She, a ninety-year-old, would refer to herself as an “adopted child.” We adopted, by law and language, never really achieve emancipation. And, I’d dare to suggest, that while emancipation for a minor means coming to the age of majority; the only analogy that fits an un-emancipated adult adoptee is that of a slave.

Some languages differ considerably from others. English depends on strict word order to assure intended meaning. Inflected languages, like Latin and Russian, Greek and German, use case endings on nouns to mark their function as direct or indirect objects, or objects of prepositions; and, of course, there’s the Genitive Case in all inflected languages – the marker for possession.

Korean is, what linguists call, an agglutinative language, which means that instead of prefixes and suffixes added on to words (as in English), Korean uses infixes, building up words and alternating meaning from the inside out so to speak. Now is that a metaphor for adoption or what. I mean when a child is placed in a closed adoption, it’s as if she’s more in an English-speaking mode than the agglutinative Korean – she’s added on like a suffix to the root of the word, an appendage to the already and never-changing family. But if it’s more, shall we say, Korean-sounding, the adoption tends towards more and more openness – the kind of adoption where the child is in-fixed, placed right in the middle of two families which become her prefix and her suffix, and not the other way around. I like that: open, in-fixed adoption, is centering the child in the midst of families: a literal child-centered adoption. The official definition of agglutination: “the systematic combining of independent words into compounds without marked change of form or loss of meaning.” Can we get away with calling ethical open adoption “agglutinative,” do you think? Agglutinative Adoption –hmmm – a little hard to market I suppose.

Coming round to syllables which can be stressed of unstressed. Stressed and unstressed: more than a simple metaphor, not only for the members of the triad but for all you professionals as well. Here you’d really prefer to be more akin to Korean or Japanese where linguists tell us there is no stress – each syllable is meant to be given equal attention, equal force, equal power, equal weight. Unstressed adoption – can we say “unstressful adoption?” That’s a marketable sound bite, but as Dan Wolf pointed out yesterday, just not true.

You probably have heard in linguistics 101 class that consonants can be voiced or unvoiced. Permit me poetic license here and rework the dichotomy as voiced and voiceless. Its’ another metaphor for the adoption experience: being a voiced consonant, having a voice, having a say, having a choice vs. that unvoiced kind of consonant -- the voiceless, powerless, timid tot, the definition perhaps of “the good adoptee.” If the world of adoption is about anything it’s about power, the power to persuade. It’s the power to persuade the powerless. The powerless perspective adoptors, for example, who find themselves squirming as they are home-studied. If they have sought to adopt from the experience of infertility, they’re already familiar with feeling voiceless, as God or nature robbed them of their dream of having their own children; and she submits her body submissively to endless probing of her most personal parts. While he feels the humiliation of “making a deposit,” as they say, a deposit of sperm in the antiseptic atmosphere of a small room equipped with visual aids to induce potency. But he knows deep down that impotency has little to do with sturdy erections and everything to do with inner implosions, soul-collapse, unvoiced by the man to be sure, but felt nonetheless.
The voiceless birthmother is no metaphor but often a literal truth – as if voice originates more from the bowels than the throat. Her bowels -- so close to the bumble she’ll give up, she remains disemboweled – voiceless.

In English voiced and voiceless aspects are constitutive of meaning, though sometimes hard to differentiate – especially for the non-native speaker. Those non-native speakers of the language of adoption often change those voiced consonants into voiceless whispers. When I went to the adoption agency, the Catholic Home Bureau, from which I was adopted and asked Sr. Una for my name, she would not give it. Despite the fact that I began using a loud voice and let fly more than one harsh set of consonants, I was really powerless, impotent, castrated – another voiceless adoptee. Being voiceless has its roots in the power of church and state which separated many of us from our peers as “illegitimate.” I prefer “bastards” myself.

Before we get on in this Search for a Verb, it’s important to remind you all that there are different kinds of verbs: there are action verbs and even descriptive verbs and, in all languages I’m familiar with, there are those neat copulating verbs. Adoptees are especially interested in these copulating verbs primarily because we don’t really believe we’re the result of two copulating human beings. We tend to think that we, like Superman, just dropped out of space into the lap of the kindly Kents.

Growing up in my adoptive home I learned English – in a Brooklyn way of course. At St. Rose of Lima (we really did and do call it Lima) a Catholic Grammar School I learned English grammar and how to parse and diagram sentences. I liked parsing sentences, taking words out of their context and finding them their proper place in the diagram. According to what part of speech these words were -- whether noun or verb, adverb or adjective –each had its proper place. I liked that, every word having its proper place. But sometimes, because language is a living, evolving thing there would be anomalies and some words had no proper place on the diagram – they didn’t fit. What I learned from this was that some things do not fit no matter what you do. But when you only know one language, and are constricted to only that language’s grammar and syntax, then you do not feel the freedom to speculate about other possible explanations. Years later when I studied Korean I discovered that, in Korean, there were postpositions instead of (as in English) prepositions. Those little words like on and to and for and by which introduce a noun in English come after the noun in Korean. Learning this simple fact enabled me to understand that families are a lot like languages – they do not all have to be understood through the same grammar. Anomalies are not to be feared; rather they induce curiosity. I learned at a recent conference that an adoptee petitioned the court to open his records. Why? The judge asked. Because I’m curious, the adoptee said. The judge ruled that curiosity is not a good reason to open records. I think curiosity is the only good reason.

In high school we had to study Latin which was, for me, a doorway to a whole new world. Latin was like a puzzle to be figured out according to logic and rules. Studying Latin made English more understandable. The fact that Latin was an inflected language was revelatory. This means that Latin nouns are declined, the endings on the noun change according to their function in the sentence. I learned from Latin that word order was not sacrosanct. In English word order is constitutive of meaning. Word order is seldom arbitrary. Take this sentence for example: The dog bit the boy. If you change the word order, you change the meaning: The boy, then, bites the dog and not the other way round. In Latin, though, word order does not matter; you can be very creative in placing words, because function is identified by the case ending and not its position in the sentence.

Closed adoption is like an English grammar: information about birth families must remain sealed, say the strict grammarians, because to reveal information would disrupt the family -- like changing the position of words in an English sentence disrupts meaning. Finding a birth family usually disrupts the sibling order of that family, as it did in mine (I think my sister, the actual second born, is still angry about that). But she was never the first born, even though she thought she was. “The bottle still smells of the liquor it once held,” Augustine once said. My sister was always smelling me even though she didn’t know it; and birthmothers know this truth too, whenever a new doctor might ask them: “So, how many children do you have?” Good adoption, open adoption, reflects more the grammar of an inflected language like Latin where word order is not absolute, but you know your place even when the one who preceded you is not physically present (sort of like when grammarians say the subject is understood).

I studied Russian in high school. My teacher was a Ukrainian √©migr√© who used to ask me to read a lot since, he said, I had a very good accent. Are you a Slav, Brosnan? he asked me more than once. And I, still in deep denial about adoption, would answer angrily: No I’m Irish. Perhaps that’s why I tried to teach myself Irish about that time. I was trying to acculturate to my adoptive family -- 100% Irish ancestry. I never succeeded in figuring out what the Irish grammar books were trying to explain. I later found out that at most I’m only 1/8th Irish, and that my father was born in Poland. Noam Chomsky, whose books on linguistic theory might as well be written in Irish or ancient Tocharian for that matter -- they are so dense. There’s one sentence from Chomsky I think I do understand: “We could not have acquired any language unless its fundamental properties were already in place, in advance of experience." He meant, I think, that the capacity for language is innate in the human being, but not that any particular language is innate. I wonder though. What about that unborn baby who hears his mother’s voice from within? Why couldn’t those neural pathways, which remain open for perhaps years in the beginning stages of life, have filtered the voice and language of his parents while in utero? Who knows? Maybe I heard my father’s father speaking the Polish, or even the Russian of the part of Poland he came from, and thus offer my Ukrainian teacher a more pleasing reading from Pushkin’s Queen of Spades then the Irish and Italian kids in my class. Language possessed in advance of experience or perhaps, the ability to pronounce Russian words having heard their particular frequency vibrating the amniotic fluid in my mother’s womb.

Writing systems are another fascinating aspect of language. English of course uses the Roman alphabet; Russian uses Cyrillic (St. Cyril having adapted the ancient Greek while evangelizing the Rus. The Chinese use ideographs: pictures, really, with no phonetic value. Although ideographs are difficult to master, these Chinese characters were essential to the unification of China. Although we call Mandarin and Cantonese dialects they are mutually unintelligible languages. However, the Chinese character will always mean the same to mandarin or Cantonese speaker, though they pronounce them differently.

Koreans didn’t invent their unique alphabet till the 15th century. Pervious to that they used Chinese characters to express Korean sounds and ideas. Now Korean and Chinese are so different that one could make the argument that Chinese is more closely related to English than it is to Korean. So you can imagine how difficult it was to write Korean poetry and prose using Chinese characters. It was a creative tension that eventually erupted into the invention of the Korean alphabet, unique in world history for many reasons, quite easy to master and extremely effective in engraphing sound. Adoption makes for a creative tension too, because the child being from another set of parents must adapt to the culture and environment of his adoptive family. We still do not fully understand or appreciate this mysterious process, but I think it is as difficult as trying to write Korean poetry with Chinese characters.

Such an effort at translation reminds me of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. I had the good fortune to be studying there during the Olympic Games. (Here’s an aside: I was there the day Greg Louganis hit his head on the diving board – and then read in the newspaper the next day that Greg Louganis had been adopted. I actually was able to get a note to him. I asked if he wanted to meet and talk about adoption. But I only received a standard press photo back). It was, nevertheless, a great moment for Korea – the feelings of national pride were palpable as you walked through the streets. That was made clear during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics when an elderly Korean gentleman ran into the stadium and lit the Olympic flame. As he slowly ran up the steps the entire nation, it seemed, began to chant his name. They were proud, yes – but this was something deeper than pride. This old gentleman was chosen to light the Olympic flame because he was the first Korean to have won an Olympic Gold Medal -- years back, it was, in the 1936 Olympics. But there was more to this story than simply a man who ran fast. In 1936 Korea had already been a colony of Japan for over twenty years. Korea would remain annexed to Japan, by force of arms, through 1945. Japan subjugated Korea, not only through military force, but through a psychological possession as well. For instance, all Koreans had to learn Japanese. School was conducted only 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 man had to take a Japanese name. This was especially humiliating. (Remember, that as a Confucian people, Koreans venerate their deceased by reverencing the nameplate representing the ancestor). And so, when this Korean man won the gold medal in 1936 he had received it as he stood under the Japanese flag. And it was his adopted Japanese name, not his given Korean name, that was broadcast throughout the world. 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 (Son Ki-chong) as he lit the Olympic flame – as if they were righting a terrible injustice, reclaiming what was stolen, all through the power of names. It was as if Koreans were waking from an amnesia of sorts, learning to speak and write their own native language.

The Korean peninsula was invaded back in the 13th century by the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan. Kublai, as you know, was the Chinese Emperor -- but he was not Chinese. He was a Mongol, the grandson of the Great Genghis Khan, father to the largest empire in world history which, at its peak, would stretch from Korea to the gates of Vienna.
When I was in grammar school other boys would 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 more pronounced when I was younger. It’s defined in the OED as a marker for those of Asian race, “in others,” the dictionary says, “it is an anomaly.” I’ve long felt at home in places I don’t belong. I am a citizen of that land of anomaly.
The geneticist Bryan Sykes cites some interesting anomalies in his recent book The Seven Daughters of Eve (W. W. Norton & Co., 2001): “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 and lived in Korea, studying language and culture. As a priest, and the only Anglo, I lived for fifteen years with the largest Korean Catholic parish in the United States. Trying to figure out on some level, I suppose, that anomaly made conscious to me by those boys in grade school verbalizing what they 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 thirteen century, sweeping across the Russian steppe, through Poland, 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, and the recessive gene popped out in me.

I was always reluctant to tell this story for fear that it would be judged so preposterous that I would turn people off. But in February of this year there was an extraordinary article in the Science Edition of the New York Times. Geneticists have taken surveys of human populations that now inhabit the former Mongol Empire. In findings that stunned geneticists they discovered that some 16 million men, or half a percent of the world’s male population, can probably claim descent from the Mongol ruling house. I must tell you, I feel very affirmed.

So what about that verb we’re searching for to symbolize by action, description, or copulation the adopted side of this mysterious experience we call adoption? First a disclaimer regarding my choice of verb: I reserve the right to change my mind at any time in the future -- because language, like life, and like the world of adoption, is always evolving. Having said that, a verb like “fit” might work, do you think. As in, it’s a good fit or you fit hand in glove. “Fit” also leaves room for other experiences like: adoptees take too many fits or her search is belabored by fits and starts. It can be useful when “fit” is prefixed with mis- as in “misfit,” which reminds me of “misbegotten” and all those “begats” of the Bible (is “begat” a copulating verb?) “Fit” can be descriptive of an adotpee’s rage as in: fit to be tied; or, for the good adoptee who always says the very fitting thing. It might apply to the placement itself as in: the suit fits well -- just tell the tailor to take up the sleeves, cuff the pants, and fit the crotch with a heavy zipper – the kid might have inherited his birthparents penchant for illicit sex.

The verb “fit” indeed seemed fitting, but walking by the lakeshore yesterday I decided to choose “wave” instead. “Wave,” of course, can be both noun and verb. You see, adoptees are very adaptable and when parsed, like sentences in grammar school, can adapt to any position on the diagram. “Wave” can apply to different forms of matter: there are waves of water as well as airwaves. And light waves. Light, the catchy aphorism tells us, is both wave and particle depending on what you’re looking for. The adopted can appear chameleon at times seeming both wave and particle but, like light, the difference is in the eye of the beholder and not in us.

“Wave” as a verb is especially apt for the adopted. We wave goodbye, so to speak, to our first mothers and fathers; and then every time, and I do mean every time, we must wave goodbye to someone else -- even if it’s only for a little while -- we remember that first wave and how it has formed our whole lives, not unlike those waves on the seashore that erode the beach and carry sand from one bay to another. I don’t know for sure, I’m no geologist or oceanographer, but don’t waves create undercurrents that continually race beneath the surface exterior of even the most seemingly tranquil adoptee?

Looking at the spelling we see that “wave” contains the Latin word “ave” meaning “hail” or “hello” as in “Ave Maria gratia plena – Hail Mary, full of grace.” When the angel Gabriel came to the virgin of Nazareth he did not address her in disgrace but as full of grace, precisely because she was pregnant and unwed. Gabriel had to assuage Mary, she was aflutter with fright. “Wave” can mean flutter as when a flag waves in the wind. And wouldn’t you agree that adoption is filled with fluttering hearts, fluttering with fright, anticipation, disappointment?

The adjectival form for “wave” is used frequently with hair as in the adoptee’s non identifying info: your birthfather had wavy brown hair and liked to play golf when he was studying for his medical exams at the hospital where he met your mother who was a nurse and who did the right thing giving you up because she loved you so much -- just before she waived her parental rights.

Of course “waive” in the sense of waiving one’s rights is spelled differently though it sounds the same. The inserted -i in the middle makes a big difference. It’s important to remember that I, as an adoptee, never waived my right, my inalienable right, to know the names of my first mother and father. And we adopted never waived our right to know the names given us at birth.

Alas as they say, I’m not sure I satisfied Jim Gritter’s request for a verb, but my search is ended for now. I’ll settle for “wave” and let you all make with it what you will. One last linguistic or, rather, phonemic lesson: you’ll notice in the verb “wave” that the -v is a voiced labiodental fricative consonant -- thank God -- because if we adoptees were completely voiceless, that voiced -v would mutate into a voiceless labiodental fricative and so be written as an -f. And then our “wave” would turn into a “waif” and we wouldn’t want that -- just when we’re finding a verb that fits and a wave we can ride.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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