Thursday, May 28, 2009

It's Better When Children Aren't Possessed - Traverse City 2001

8th Biennial Conference on Open Adoption
Open Adoption as a Countercultural Relationship

May 3-5, 2001
Traverse City, Michigan

It’s Better When Children Aren’t Possessed
Fr. Tom Brosnan

Countercultural credentials are hard to come by for a good adoptee but in high school, at the height of the Vietnam War, several of my teachers were ardent anti-war activists. So much so that the FBI had begun to tap the phones of the religious order that ran my high school. I too was very much against the war and talked about going to Canada rather than being drafted. I listened to Simon and Garfunkel and Peter, Paul and Mary until my father forbade such music to be played in the house. My mother seemed always to be overprotective of me: when I wanted to go off to join the religious order of brothers that taught in my school to a high school they ran in Maryland she became extremely upset and put the kabash on the whole project. In other words, my parents kept close ties on me. That’s why it’s still very much a mystery to me the night my mother came into my room and said she wanted to talk. The emotional feel was reminiscent of the time my parents had told me I was adopted. My mother was quite serious without being hysterical -- her usual pattern of dealing with serious things. She sat me down on the bed and told me that after high school, if the war was still on, she and my father expected me to serve in the army if I was drafted. Now, I suppose this scenario could be read in several ways. My parents were ordinary blue-collar folks; they were patriotic and intensely disliked the demonstrations against the war that were beginning to sweep the country, and so perhaps wanted their son to share in what they considered a definite value – patriotism. On the other had, my mother was so overprotective of me, making sure in so many subtle and not so subtle ways, that I didn’t partake in anything she considered dangerous activity that it seemed quite out of character when she told me I should serve in the army, especially when each night on the evening news we would hear the body count of the day in far away Vietnam. As it turned out after high school I got a student deferment (while drawing a number 10 in the draft lottery). I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had the deferment – would I have had the courage to go to Canada or would I have dutifully joined up to serve in Vietnam – too loyal for my own good. And, of course, the fundamental question: too loyal to whom?

Jim Gritter always comes up with topics that make you expand you’re thinking as a presenter – perhaps taking you down roads you might not have otherwise traveled, to places you’d rather not go. But that’s the challenge about counter-cultural conventions – they’re so unconventional. Speaking on the topic It’s Better when Children Aren’t Possessed at an adoption conference is bound to upset a few apple carts – after all would it be better if children were left without families, or in families that didn’t want them; and don’t all parents adoptive or not possess their children in a certain sense? Such a topic raises issues central to the adoption experience, like: what is the purpose of adoption, and do the intentions of adoptive parents really matter all that much? Since I’m an adopted person, basic to my presentation is the adoptee’s point of view: how doe the issue of loyalty play itself out in light of unspoken expectations of entitlement which are part and parcel of the adoption experience. I do not think the issues change in regard to loyalty whether an adoption is open or closed, but resolutions are deeply affected for the worse when secrecy is at the core of the experience.

So, what would you do if you were a priest given the dilemma of possession. You got it: an exorcism. In the next half-hour I’d like to at least begin an exorcism of sorts. If you remember the movie by the same name, the first step is to expose the demon, to acknowledge his presence so as to command it to flee. The demon seeks to possess, to enslave the person. The exorcist seeks the person’s freedom from oppression. The demon’s name is loyalty.

All adoption is founded on relinquishment. For the infant relinquishment is always experienced as profound loss, it does not matter to the unreasoning infant why the relinquishment took place. It does not matter if the baby was orphaned by war or sickness, given up for economic reasons, removed from his mother because she was an addict, because she endangered his life. It does not matter to the child if his mother and father were forced to relinquish due to societal pressure of one kind or another. Relinquishment is always experienced as profound loss and the adoption that follows, as beneficial as it may be to the child, is always founded on that experience of loss.

I have to start by thanking Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao for something she did some fifteen years ago when she invited her friend to deliver the keynote at the American Adoption Congress Conference in NYC. Dr. Lesten Havens, head of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical, presented with humor and insight a talk he called The Psychological Possession of Human Beings. For the first time it seemed to me someone had put into words what I had felt my whole life. You’re thinking, perhaps, that this was not such a good thing -- to realize that you have been possessed. But no, it was a tremendous relief. Someone had finally verbalized my experience and given me permission to do the same. Dr. Havens was able with humor to illustrate how all of us, adopted or not, are psychologically possessed by other human beings. How our culture and society contribute to this sense of possession and domination. How good health is got by acknowledging the reality rather than keeping it under lock and key, repressed deep within.

And here’s the heart of the issue: possession is akin to enslavement. Psychological Possession of another is at the root of all slavery. By means of race, economics, branding one illegitimate, by command of names, psychological possession on the psyche of the one possessed. I’ve been doing some reading lately on the notion of slavery in the Bible. Harvard’s Orlando Patterson writes that “the mark of slavery is not essentially bondage but natal alienation. Slaves, he said, were socially dead persons, without birthright, isolated from the social heritage of their ancestors, not allowed to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory. As aliens, slaves lacked a place in the cosmos. They were of the lineage of their master, but not in it – given an often demeaning name, regularly addressed as boy. The root of slavery’s evil is not racism or even economic exploitation of people as property, but the ritual dehumanization that deprives people of their natal identity in family and society, a characteristic that shaped ancient as much as modern slavery.” I would suggest that the practice of closed adoption does precisely the same thing. It engages in natal alienation through relinquishment and into the secrecy of the closed adoption system. Jean Paton, whom this conference honors for her work toward emancipation of the adopted, and whom we gratefully acknowledge as the founder of the adoption reform movement in the United States, wrote a book way back in 1959 which she entitled They (meaning the adopted) Serve Fugitively. It is no coincidence that the title reflects the same sentiment of indebtedness, the mark of an indentured status, the dilemma the adopted face over the placement or displacement of filial loyalty.

I’m reminded of the recent case of Matthew Propp. You might have read about Matthew Propp, a young man who applied to become a policeman only to discover that the parents who raised him were not his biological parents and then discovers his adoptive parents did not legally adopt him. His adoptive father is extradited to New York to face kidnapping charges. Matthew goes with him and sits in court “to be a support,” he tells the press. Meanwhile, while in New York, Matthew meets his birth parents. I would suggest that every adoptee knows how Matthew seems to feel: struggling to be loyal to the parents who raised you, while infinitely curious about those who gave you birth. Closed adoption and secrecy have manufactured the dilemma, dichotomizing and dividing, propagandizing that we adopted need to choose between the two, it’s the world of either/or. Authentic Open Adoption is based on that countercultural premise that you can and do belong in more than one family. That, although relinquishment means the adopted have suffered natal alienation, through open adoption that natal alienation does not have to be a permanent disability.
As difficult as this is for me to say and perhaps for you to hear this basic condition of natal alienation is the mark of both closed adoption and slavery. Both are primarily experiences of psychological possession (though physical possession is also concretized in law). This possession is enforced through status: the bastard – the illegitimate one, the one born outside the law -- by very definition can never fully assert himself in licit society, civil or ecclesial.
I needed special dispensation to become a priest. Even in 1981 no bastard could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders according to the Church's Canon Law. Through race: the mark of feeling alien. Through religion. Through language – especially names. In such a climate issues of loyalty become paramount. Loyalty, or a seeming lack of it, becomes the gauge of self perception. The issue of loyalty can become so uncomfortable it effects the observer’s perceptions as well. I’m thinking here, for example, of biblical accounts of adoption and slavery. In the case of Moses, so uncomfortable did Freud feel over the psychological issues inherent in the Moses’ story that he argued in his famous work Moses and Monotheism that Moses was actually never adopted -- but rather, Freud would make the extraordinary claim that Moses was Egyptian by birth. In the New Testament Letter of Paul to Philemon, Paul sends the fugitive slave Onesimus (there’s that word fugitive again: is this the origin of Jean Paton’s title, I wonder) back to his master Philemon. This letter of the Bible was used by American slaveholders to justify slavery. Recent revisionist theologians however, perhaps embarrassed by Paul’s seeming acquiescence on the issue of slavery, argue (despite nearly twenty centuries of opinion to the contrary) that Onesimus was not in actuality Philemon’s slave, but rather his brother by blood. So uncomfortable do these scripture scholars feel over what seems to be an obvious truth – that Onesimus is a slave to Philemon and not a brother or to Freud that Moses was Hebrew not Egyptian – that they will wrap their denial in fanciful theories despite obvious facts. In an analogous way I believe adoptees do the same thing surrounding the issue of loyalty.

I was inexplicably moved Thursday during Mike Trout’s depiction of his son’s struggle with that core issue of loyalty among his three fathers. I was moved of course by the power of the story, by the beautiful manner in which Mike related it – but it’s not really inexplicable. Now that my adoptive mother is in need of constant care, a friend of mine told me I should have never taken her home from the nursing home, she was receiving good care, in a lovely environment, among a lot of people who would talk with her and keep her company. But I could not bear the inordinate guilt to see her there. I do not mean to sound self-serving, because what I now say has nothing to do with heroics, but I think I have always spent too much time and effort trying to prove my loyalty to my adoptive parents. I’ve over-achieved in this business of filial loyalty. I would suggest that adoptees tend to do that, and for some reason, male adoptees even more so. So loyal are we that we are willing to deny obvious facts -- that we also belong to another family – and forsake our provenance (as Annette Baran put it Thursday), in order to prove that we – the original illegal aliens, as it were, can indeed be loyal citizens of our adopted land.

That’s why Onesimus of Paul’s Letter to Philemon means so much to me. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon his master. But Onesimus ran away once, he didn’t do it again. He chose to return. I never had the courage to run away from home but did try to escape by entering a monastery after high school.

That’s why the Haitian slave Pierre Toussaint, whose cause is up for canonization (sainthood), also means so much to me. When offered his freedom when his master unexpectedly died, Pierre chose to remain with his master’s wife and children in New York City supporting them with the money he earned as the premier hairdresser of 19th century New York elite society. Every night after working all day Pierre would return to his master’s house, change into his servant’s clothes and serve them a meal -- the food for which he himself had purchased with his own money.

When I grow impatient in having to care for my ailing mother and resentful that I have to meet her needs (reminding me that I have always been meeting her needs and angry and resentful about that) I pray to Pierre Toussaint that I might imitate, in even a small way, his humble patience – because I really do believe we have a lot in common. If he is a saint (though it cannot be because he was a slave), but because he exercised an immense freedom within such a limited situation. It’s because he chose what he wanted and that made all the difference. He was enslaved, but he wasn’t possessed.

How one becomes enslaved or psychologically possessed may be the result of politics or economics or race -- but also because of religion. Religion itself can be one of the greatest culprits in this business of psychological possession. I think Carl Jung was on to something when he said that religion is often “the very thing that prevents us from an experience of God.” Possessions are achieved even with the best of intentions, even with religious motivations.

In 1858 Pope Pius IX (whom the present pope has recently beatified) when he was still the temporal ruler of the Papal States, sent the papal police to the Jewish home of the Mortara Family in Bologna and took their six-year old son Edgardo from them -- never to return him. A Catholic servant girl had secretly baptized the boy when he had been deathly ill and later told the papal inquisitor. Pius IX, believing that no baptized child could be raised by Jewish parents, insisted on his right to raise the boy himself and Edgardo grew up in the papal household. Many historians believe this action, which enraged the European community, eventually caused the fall of the Papal States. 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 spend his priesthood traveling throughout Europe preaching for the conversion of the Jews. He met his family again at 18 years old when the choice was offered him to return or not. By then issues of loyalty must have loomed large in his adoptive mind. He would take the religious name Pius in honor of the pope. He would be the first to testify in favor of Pius IX’s 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. Psychological possession of a human being is a powerful thing. “The complete loss of one’s identity is with all propriety of theological definition hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.” No one can gauge the genuineness of Edgardo Mortara’s faith, but one can question the path that led him to it, a path filled with religious arrogance and misplaced compassion. Closed adoption has placed many of us on that same path, firmly insisting that nurture is all important and nature means nothing. Or, like Rosie O’Donnell telling the world that she told her adopted child that God made a mistake and placed her in the wrong womb, oblivious to the fact that such a theology can only lead to the conclusion that we too are mistakes.

[Joke: Four Catholic Ladies]

Orlando Patterson remarks that a mark of the enslaved is often seen in the names they are given. Names, I believe, hold an immense power. They become, like our signature, sacraments of who we are. From the Christian perspective when one is baptized he is given a name that he will take with him into eternity. When names are stolen or changed without permission, a violation occurs, a spiritual rape if you will of that most sacred part of the person.

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. 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 that time Korea 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 by reverencing the nameplate representing 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 adopted 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 (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.

In Helen Fremont’s recent memoir of her family, entitled After Long Silence, the importance of names and what they mean when they are lost takes on poignant meaning. After Long Silence is Helen Fremont’s memoir of discovering as an adult, after 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 murdered dead who 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 met my birthmother she told me she had named me for her brother Tom, a Catholic priest. My adoptive parents kept my birth name which I’m happy about – but also there’s something about it that bothers me a lot. I hate my name when its diminutive form is used. I hate to be called “Tommy”. My mother still calls me by that name. Still, even at the age of 48, I feel my face blush when she calls me Tommy in front of people whom I’ve never met or who have never heard me referred to by that name. There’s a cultural undertone at work here, I realize, having to do with Irish ways and a certain liking for the diminutive ending. Tommy Makem’s band, for instance. It carried over into American culture too a lot it seems in the music world: you might remember Tommy Dorsey or even Tommy Newsom from the Johnny Carson Show. I know when my mother calls me Tommy she is using it as a mark of her affection, but I suspect there is something more as well. It’s also a way of keeping a son a child. No doubt you might argue that that has little if anything to do with adoption – a lot of mothers, adoptive or not, seek to keep their sons children. Perhaps so, but in this strange land of adoption use of the diminutive takes on added meaning, where the child, the unemancipated minor remains in many ways always the adopted child. Names, in diminutive or childlike form are a symbol of the puer aeternus, the eternal boy. Sharon Roszia told me yesterday that I looked like a little boy standing in the hotel lobby. I think she meant I looked lost. It’s me though. I am a Tommy just as much as a Tom or a Thomas and my Korean name (Su-nam) could be translated as eternal youth as well. No Gettysburg Address for us, we are the forever un-emancipated.. From antiquity to the last century slaves were often given such diminutive names. Indeed our friend Onesimus has a name that literally means useful, and St. Paul makes word play out of it in his letter to Philemon (“may Onesimus now be useful to us,” he says). There’s another ambiguity that reflects the unexplored connection between un-emancipated minor and slave in the biblical texts. The Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as the Greek New Testament itself, overwhelming translates the Hebrew word for slave into Greek, not with its literal equivalent but by the word “pais,” which can mean either child or servant or slave or child. We’re familiar with the power of such a designation, aren’t we? When, if by accident or ignorance, an African American (of whatever age) is referred to by the term “boy,” a certain rage becomes palpable. Those born into different status are keenly aware of language and its power to possess – to become the means by which a certain enslavement is maintained. I am suggesting that it is not only a perception but – through language – an actual attempt, perhaps unconscious, to keep people born into a certain status in the place perceived proper to them by whatever institutions.

Years ago, when I was first ordained, I mentioned in a sermon that I was adopted and searching for my birth parents. After Mass a parishioner came up to me and very discreetly whispered into my ear. “Father, I just want you to know I’m an adopted child too.” Anna Kamien-Grace was a lovely lady who eventually told me her heartbreaking story of how her mother told her that she was adopted on her wedding day. She told me of the incredible rage she felt from that day on. At the time she whispered into my ear that she was an adopted child, Anna Grace had just turned 90 years old. Language is so important – it’s the cement of culture -- permeating everything from what we do, to how we perceive, to how we remember. At 90 years old this woman still perceived herself, through the betrayal of language, as an adopted child. Possession is effected especially, it seems to me, by language, the power of words, the import of names.

So, we need exorcisms, don’t we? That’s why exorcisms can be especially helpful. The great Michelangelo was an exorcist too. When asked how he created such beautiful sculpture he said he simply released what was already there, what was already present in the marble. He chipped away at all that didn’t belong. Exorcisms remove what doesn’t belong so we might become what we were intended to be – beautiful in our human dignity. Secrecy and lies mar that dignity and the deliberate coveting of vital information, the names and heritage of the adopted, is ultimately an act of violence an act of psychological enslavement or possession -- an injustice that needs remedy.

In his encyclical entitled Faith and Reason, my boss, Pope John Paul II wrote, in a rather extraordinary manner, apropos for us here today who seek to honor the sacred connections of birth and adoptive relationships. Von Balthasar, the great theologian of the last century, would redefine religion as the reuniting of previously separated parts. In Faith and Reason John Paul says that the journey toward truth has unfolded, as it must, within the horizon of self-consciousness. It is found in both East and West, recorded in the sacred writings of Israel as well as in the Veda and the Avesta, in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, heard in the preaching of Tirthankara and the Buddha. It is a journey that leads us to heed the admonition carved on the temple portal at Delphi -- the admonition to know thyself and to answer the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I and Where have I come from? Those who seek to answer these questions, the pope proclaims, set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings,’ that is, as those who ‘know themselves.’

No different, I think, for that charismatic nun of 16th century Spain, Teresa of Avila, who claimed intimate encounters with the divine. When her nuns asked her to teach them how they might have similar ecstasies, Teresa could only respond by telling the truth: “For never, never,” she told them. “No matter how exalted the soul may be is anything else more fitting than self-knowledge.” Teresa knew what was most important – not divine visions, but to become a human being, that is -- the creature who seeks to know herself.

We too seek to become human beings. We have an inalienable right to do so. Indeed we have a divine mandate to pursue the truth of our origins. We who have suffered the effects of that natal alienation, who have been possessed by means of status or race or religion or language or names – we too seek emancipation. We seek to become human beings. Despite the injustices of the past century that have kept us in dubious status, we have continued to seek what was taken from us, to claim what has been kept secret from our eyes. Through our natal alienation we have for too long been perceived and self-perceived as alien, neither conceived nor born through physical intercourse, our histories devoid of sex, as if we were dropped from the sky by stalk or surrogate court into the shrouded world of closed adoption and sealed records. Help us become human beings, help us join the human race: no more amended birth certificates -- euphemisms for lies. Restore to us our names and birthright – give back to us our human dignity.

So, I hope this exorcism has worked – even if it has to be repeated until all is once again well. You know, there are many exorcisms recorded in scriptures sacred to many traditions, but I’d like to end recalling an episode from Gospel of John not usually understood as an exorcism: when Jesus discovers, on arriving at Bethany, that his good friend Lazarus has died. In a whirlwind of emotion, weeping and impatient, Jesus goes to the tomb and cries out in a loud voice: “Lazarus come out.” The scripture tells us that “the dead man came out, bound head and foot in burial cloth, his head wrapped in a shroud.” Then the subtle and powerful words of exorcism, addressed not to any evil spirit or monstrous horror, but to the simple, good-intentioned folk standing around: ”’Untie him,’ Jesus tells them, ‘and let him go free.’” You see, exorcisms -- if performed well -- don’t rely primarily on any divine power but on the simple courage and sincere commitment to truth of ordinary people like you and me. It is the liberating action of ordinary folks, folks like you and me, who remove the strips that bound Lazarus in death, that ultimately enabled him to once again emerge -- a human being.

We, the adopted, seek to become human beings too – to emerge from the darkness of the tomb, from the shroud of secrecy. We too seek to become human beings, that is, we want to be they who seek to know themselves.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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