Thursday, May 28, 2009

Intro to Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies - Cinema Arts 1996

Cinema Arts Center
Huntington, New York
November 10, 1996
Introduction to Secrets & Lies

The plot is simple in this wonderful British film: a young woman, who had been adopted at birth, decides, after her adoptive parents have died, to search for her birth mother. Since 1975 in Great Britain an adult adoptee can choose to do just that, because a more enlightened social policy recognizes the truth that a person's right to know his name, his family, his heritage, is an inalienable right.

Not so in 47 of these United States. Adoption records, which were always open, began to be sealed in the 1940's. As recently as ten years ago Pennsylvania, which had always had open records, sealed all adoption records retroactively. Alabama has done the same. Unlike Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel, we here in the U.S., and especially here in New York State, claim that certain adults do not have that right. Is it because they have been convicted of a crime; are they mentally incapacitated; is there abuse afoot? Not at all--but these are the adopted, and the contract signed over their infant bodies without their consent continues to keep secret from them their names, their parents, their heritage, their genetic information.

If I were to go into the audience tonight and ask you: "Does a person have the right to know his name?" I would think most of you might chuckle and say, "Of course." But if I were to insert the word adopted, then many would hesitate, and some would simply say, "No." But the question remains: does an adult American citizen have the right to know his name, to see his birth certificate, to know his heritage and medical history or not? Must adopted persons remain second class citizens?

A psychiatrist who treats adoptees recently wrote that foreign travel is a significant factor in spurring an adoptee to begin searching. I can attest to this for in 1985, after spending three months in Korea studying language and culture and experiencing culture shock, I returned to New York with one firm purpose in mind--to find my birth mother, who I would later discover was unmarried and alone, sent to New York by her older brother to deliver me into the world and then relinquish me to the closed adoption system. My mother would name though. She gave me the name of her brother, who was a Jesuit priest.

Some friends asked me: "Why would you want to do such a thing?" It was some time till I found others who asked with a different emphasis: "why wouldn't you want to know?" But unlike Hortense Cumberbatch, the adoptee in tonight's film, all my adoption records were sealed. In their place were issued one lie after another. My birth certificate indicated that my adoptive parents gave me birth. My baptismal certificate says the same and further lies that my adoptive parents baptized me, which they did not, and lies about the identity of my godparents. When I wanted to become a priest I produced my false baptismal certificate only to be told that the proper authorities would find the original so that a proper dispensation could be given--that is special permission obtained for me to be ordained a priest. "Why?" I asked. "Because bastards cannot be ordained priests," they said. "I guess it couldn't have been that secret," I said.

Tennessee has just passed a law to open the records. The Christian Coalition is now in court trying to stop the law from taking effect. Like various Catholic Conferences throughout the U.S. , the Christian Coalition wants a woman's dark secret to be kept just that--dark and secret. And that's exactly what they told birthmothers: "sign the papers, forget it, and get on with your life," as if giving birth to a human being can be forgotten like yesterday's breakfast. Legislators tend to side with the religious right on this issue, and ask with dripping sincerity: "but do we have a right to open those records?" I think the proper question should be: "did you ever have a right to close them?"

The proposed legislation we adoptees seek does not seek to make these documents public. It seeks only to have them open to the parties involved. If an adoptee does not wish to search, he does not have to. If a birth mother does not wish contact, she can veto access. ***

St. Thomas Aquinas once said that man is a truth seeking animal and to deny him truth is to do his nature violence. The characters in Secrets & Lies suffer this kind of violence, a destructiveness that gnaws away at their sense of well-being and their very dignity. Secrets and lies can destroy families; they can be a living hell.

When I told my adoptive parents that I had found my birthmother, they were at first upset, and nervous, and sad. But my search freed us in a way, and finally gave us the opportunity to talk about adoption openly; something we had never done before, though looking back these many years later, I understand that adoption was the very air we breathed. For the adoptee, searching for his origins is not a reflection on the adoptive family, but a nagging realization that you belong in more than one place. The late Bart Giomotti, Commissioner of Baseball and medieval scholar, knew this when he wrote that baseball was like life, about starting out at home base and doing your darndest to end up right back at home base. Searching is the stuff of like the subject of all great myth and literature; it's like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who must leave Kansas to discover there's no place like home. Adoptees also must leave home--in order to find home. T.S. Eliot perhaps put it best:

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time."

Secrets & Lies is a story about the redemptive and healing power of truth, a commodity sadly lacking in the world of closed adoption. Despite adoption laws, which are really laws concerning commodities, the right of an adopted person to know his origins is based on one fundamental truth which this film conveys with conviction and pathos -- that truth being that you can indeed miss what you've never had.

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