Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spirituality & Adoption - Schering Plough Adopt Support 1996

Adoption Support Group
Schering-Plough Corporation

Kenilworth, New Jersey
November 4, 1996
Spirituality and Adoption
Fr. Tom Brosnan

Good evening. My name is Tom Brosnan. I'm an adopted person and a Roman Catholic Priest. I currently live and work with Korean Catholics in Flushing, Queens. I'm very happy to have this opportunity to speak with you this evening and would like to thank Joan Crout for inviting me tonight to share with you a bit of my own story. I hope my story will help each of you in some way come to a better understanding of the complicated and profound mystery that the term adoption encompasses.

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 and accident, providence or chance: these are the questions which every human being seeks somehow to answer. And in this adoptees are no different, but often times, they become the pioneers on that frontier where such questions are voiced. I hope my struggle to approach these questions will assist you wherever you may be on that journey. Each individual story, after all, is an epic adventure in its own right. So, instead of trying to be scholastic about it, permit me to relate a few stories--some mythical, some historical--but all very true.

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.

And who of us is not familiar with the great American fable about the hero from Kansas? No, I don't mean Bob Dole. Of course, I'm referring to Dorothy who must journey from Kansas through the land of Oz in order to end up back where she started realizing that "there's no place like home." Dorothy is being raised by her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry; she, too, is an adoptee of sorts. Her perilous pilgrimage through the Land of Oz is fraught with unknown forces and dark encounters. Yet, all the while, she is guided by the good witch, supported by loyal friends, clutching her beloved dog all the way. The myth holds many insights, especially about belonging. Dorothy must leave home in order to find home.

Which reminds me of another great contribution American culture has taught us about being a human being. I'm not thinking here about any great scientific discovery or advancement of democratic ideals. I'm thinking about Baseball--especially after that exciting World Series. The late Bart Giomotti, one-time Commissioner of Baseball, who was also a medieval scholar, said that "baseball is really the story of life." It is about coming home. You start at home base and all your goal is to get right back to where you started. But if you succeed and reach home plate again, even though home base will look the same, and the players will be in the same positions, and your uniform will still read the same number, you will not be the same person--for you will have undergone a journey, a pilgrimage to home, a search for self. "We shall not cease from exploration," T.S. Eliot wrote, "And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time."

But each journey is fraught with danger. 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)

All serious talk about adoption must begin with the acknowledgment that all adoption, no matter how necessary or good or wonderful, is founded on a profound loss. Because isn't it true that for adoption to take place, the child must, through some misfortune, already have suffered the loss of his biological parents? No matter what those parents were like, the loss from the child's viewpoint is immeasurable. It is, in my opinion, the greatest loss any human being can suffer. Since the child is usually too young to express that loss in words, we mistakenly conclude he won't remember. But he does. I believe that that trauma of relinquishment shapes his whole life.

Each of these stories is based on an initial separation. Whether it is the tornado that rips Dorothy's house off its foundations and transports her to Oz; or the tiger cub's loss of his parents; or the young Asian man's loss of true identity. For the adopted person that original calamity is called relinquishment. It is a nicer word than rejection, and much more acceptable in polite company than the word abandonment. But, to the infant, relinquishment must always mean precisely that--the rejection, the abandonment, of the child by his mother. This is an incontrovertible premise to our discussion of adoption. It is painful to face for all involved, and we wish it were not so. No matter what the reason, however understandable or necessary the reason may have been, the child always experiences the initial relinquishment as rejection--no matter how well he comes to appreciate the mitigating factors later on.

This relinquishment is traumatic. Dr John Sonne, a psychiatrist here in New Jersey, who has done extensive work with adoptees and abortion survivors, has found that both suffer the same wounds. In other words adoptees have undergone what we might call a psychological abortion. Likewise, the birth mothers experience the same type of feelings as the woman who has chosen to abort her baby. In a sense we could even say that the birth mother who relinquishes to closed adoption suffers a greater psychological loss, for she does not know what has happened to her child. She has feelings akin to those who have lost loved ones to war without recovering their remains. They are MIAs--Missing-in-Action. There is no closure. The not-knowing becomes the burden.

For the adoptive couple, loss is no stranger either. Not always, but usually, couples seek to adopt after they have struggled for years with infertility, having undergone the modern tortures of fertility clinics and the perpetual "new technique" that has just been developed. Infertile couples need to acknowledge that their decision to adopt is always a second choice. This is neither good nor bad; it just is. No one grows up dreaming that some day she will be raising other people's children. Each wants her own. It is, after all, only natural. And, make no mistake about it, the loss of the dream of having your own children is a traumatic experience; it is a profound loss; it is a devastating fact of life which even puts the couple's marriage to the test. In truth, adoption is not the solution to the problem of infertility. Adoption can make an infertile couple into parents. It can even make them the best of parents; but it can never make them fertile. Infertility is a life-long struggle; easier, no doubt, with time, but never fully resolved. It will raise its head again when the adopted child enters adolescence and experiences his own sexual awakening. The adoptive parents must again face their own infertility when their adoptive children have children of their own, and questions of genetic connection once more surface. Adoptive parents share the experience of loss.

In the adopted person the trauma surrounding relinquishment manifests itself in the quest for identity, the feelings 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, 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 tonight the Patty Duke experience, is what adopted children have lost.

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, 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.

Before I found my birthmother I discovered that her brother was a Jesuit priest who had died young 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 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 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. And, as put so well in the recent film Secrets & Lies, you really can miss what you've never had.

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, like the Asian boy in the group home. This points to the obvious, though not widely accepted truth, that families created through adoption are different from families created in the usual way. This is not to say they are better or worse, but only that they are different.

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!"

Dr. John Sonne whom I have already mentioned, discovered that travel to foreign places is a great catalyst in the adopted person's decision to search. Maybe the very act of leaving home reminds us that we also belong somewhere else. This search for home is the stuff of all great literature and it is the message of religion also. The sacred pilgrimage to the place we truly belong: Odysseus seeking Ithaca; the search for the Holy Grail; the Muslim's journey to Mecca; the mystic's glimpse of heaven; the Buddhist's crossing into Nirvana; Dorothy's sojourn in Oz; the object of the game of baseball. The adoptee's search for genetic connection is not a rejection of his adoptive home--but a profound need to discover he belongs in more than one place. In this sense the search is a sacred pilgrimage, a spiritual journey mirroring the mystic's quest for the divine. It is not a rejection of what one leaves, but an embracing of yet another piece of the puzzle. As St. Catherine of Sienna put it: "All the way to heaven is heaven."

But the journey is fraught with obstacles. Just last week a man called me telling me he had been adopted as an infant. Now thirty-eight, he and his wife were expecting their second child, and they were worried. You see, their first baby was born with a terrible birth defect. There was no history of such in his wife's family, and the man feels, for the first time in his life, that he must find his birth mother. He proceeded to tell me of the difficulties he encountered every place he turned. The courts have sealed his records. He went to the place of his baptism, but the priest refused him the information he requested. Mind you, what information was the man asking for--the name given him at his birth; the name of his mother, the woman from whom he was born. The priest told him he had no right to that confidential information. Is it only me? Do you not think there is something terribly wrong here? No right to information about you; no right to your name; no right to know the name of your mother and father; no right to know the current medical condition of the only human beings on earth who share your specific genetic code. And some tell me I exaggerate when I compare the institution of closed adoption to that of slavery. Do I, really?

It is especially sad for me to acknowledge that the principal opponent to open records is in many cases local Catholic Conferences. "We have promised the birth mother confidentiality," the New Jersey Catholic Conference claimed in its testimony against a bill to open records recently. "The dark secret must remain secret." These are their words, not mine. Putting aside for the moment the question of whether confidentiality was ever promised in the first place (there is evidence that in many cases it was not); and putting aside the real possibility that a young woman, scarred and pregnant, could ever have made a free decision to relinquish her child without ever wanting to know what happened to him; and putting aside for the moment the real possibility that those same women, even if their decisions were made freely, could not, years later, change their minds; putting all these things aside for the moment, there still remains the basic issue of justice. How can anyone, government official or church leader, ever validly claim that they have the right to keep from anyone his identity and heritage, who his parents are, and where his people have come from? If I were to put the question to the ordinary man or woman on the street: "Excuse me sir, do you think a person has the right to know his name? Excuse me ma'am, do you think an adult has the right to see his own birth certificate?" I think you would agree that most people would laugh and say, "Of course." But if I inserted the word adopted, and asked the same question, many would hesitate, some would say no. Either an adult has a right to his name, his heritage, his birth certificate, or he does not. I did not choose to be born a bastard, and so I do not feel I should continue to be punished for society's judgment against the circumstances of my birth.

Sadly, in the United States, only three states have open records. And even more sadly the Catholic Conferences in various states have been instrumental in sealing records retroactively after they had always been open. Here in New Jersey, Archbishop McCarrick and the New Jersey Catholic Conference have fought vehemently to defeat any bill that seeks justice in this regard. Their testimony, to my mind, is despicable and betrays the Church's trust in them to proclaim the truth.

But it is not just here in New Jersey that church authorities have betrayed that trust. In the recent 20/20 documentary aired last week about children born to unwed Irish mothers, the manner in which unwed mothers were treated and the secrecy in which foreign adoptions were arranged, was scandalous. It has caused quite a furor among Irish Catholics, and rightfully so. Some will say such a program is nothing more than Catholic bashing, but the fact remains that the church was not only responsible for a very cruel way of dealing with the birth mothers, referring to them as Magdalenes, but also would find itself hard put to explain why no illegitimate children were adopted by Irish couples. All 2,000 illegitimate babies were adopted-out to America. It seems that certain church officials treated bastards the same way St. Patrick treated snakes, both banished from Erin, hopefully never to return.

There are other more subtle obstacles to overcome which are in the realm of the personal, like the guilt adoptees feel when seeking their adoptive parents' support in their search. Or the feelings you might have just experienced when I used the word bastard. I recently heard Dr. Laura Schlessinger on talk radio. Dr. Laura is not a psychologist, but rather an advice-giver, sort of an Ann Landers with a PhD. A woman called with this dilemma: before marrying her husband she had had intercourse with him and became pregnant. They married before she began to show, but gave birth within five months. Their son, now entering his teens, began to figure out the math involved, and asked his mother how he could be born so quickly after their marriage. So the mother calls Dr. Laura, who helps the woman identify the dilemma clearly: how can the mother insist on her son behaving appropriately in sexual matters when it will be obvious to him that she and his father did not.

(An aside here. When I first met my birth mother she would tell me about her six other children. When it came to my 20 year old sister who was living with her boyfriend, my mother would get very agitated, and in all earnestness voice the great irony: "I don't understand how she can do such a thing.")

At any rate Dr. Laura tells the woman that she needs to tell her son the truth. Now that's good advice. But then Dr. Laura tells the woman to tell her son that just because she and his father had made a mistake, doesn't give him permission to do the same. Much in the same way, I suppose, President Clinton has become so down on pot smoking lately. But, as an adoptee, I would have liked to ask Dr. Laura: Very well, after you tell the truth, and then pass judgment that the boy's mother and father made a mistake, how is the boy to conclude anything other than that he himself is the mistake?

I believe this is the dilemma, the conundrum, that underlies all the secrecy and lies that surround closed adoption, and the terrible injustices committed in its name. There is no easy answer, at least no simple answer to this profound question: how can, what religion and culture and society deem to be sinful or illegal or unseemly, produce anything other than the same?

I believe that when an adopted person undertakes the search for his origins he is confronting this great question. Whether he finds his birth parents or not, whether he answers the question or not, is really not the most important thing--it is the decision to ask, to seek, to knock that is of utmost importance, because probably for the first time in his life, he is taking himself seriously.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, and one of the Pope's favorites, described true religion as the "re-bonding of previously separated parts." If that is true, then the adopted who choose to search are its greatest adherents and practitioners. Organized religion should not work against us, but stand with us on this journey.

There are signs of change, however, despite those that seek to hinder our search for truth. In these last few years there has been a real shift of emphasis concerning the adopted person's need and right to search. In the past if an adoptee told anyone he was searching for his birth mother, they would have looked at him sympathetically and asked: "Why would you want to do that?" Today, thankfully, many people hear of an adopted person's desire to search and they ask: "Well, why wouldn't he want to know?"

This shift of question reflects, in my opinion, the great shift in biology over these past few decades. In the 1940's when adoption records began to be sealed in America, the belief was that environment played the dominant role in human development. As Linda Burgess relates in her book The Art of Adoption, "because psychology emphasized environment rather than heredity in child development...(p)arents saw the chance to erase in their adopted children the hereditary components which, it was assumed, were of dubious quality. (T)he personality and character of their adopted children could be molded and the children would be as if born to them."

Scientific investigation into genetics seems to daily reveal the powerful role our genes play, not only in our physical attributes, but also in the realm of personality, temperament and desire. Dr. Thomas Bouchard, I think from the University of Michigan, has done monumental work with twins reared apart, and has shown that our genes are responsible for far more than we ever thought possible. It seems that it is the unique interplay between heredity and environment that forms the individual. Yet, I think we must honestly conclude, that environment is the variable in the equation, while genetic inheritance remains the constant.

Questions concerning belonging, then, do not have to be answered in a dualistic, either/or, fashion. The answer can indeed be both/and. The adopted person really does belong in two places; he really does have four parents. Just as heredity and environment are not mutually exclusive, adoptive and birth parents do not have to be mutually exclusive either. The adoptive parents are the psychological parents of the child, who through their love and sacrifice can indeed be the best parents for the child. But neither love nor law can eradicate biology. To deny that part of the person--his genetic inheritance--is to do him violence. Just as love cannot alter the genetic facts, issuing false birth certificates and false baptismal certificates cannot make the adoptive parents into the child's biological parents. We should not pretend that it does.

I hope I have given you some things to think about tonight about adoption. I know there were no particulars about adoption services and procedures, and although adoption is about those things too, it is more importantly about the great issues of human life. It is about sex and God and mystery.

There's a legend about a group of Irish writers who got together and figured out the formula for all great literature. Their ideas eventually filtered down into grade schools throughout the country. Once, in a tenth grade 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?"

Life, like good literature, is also about God, and sex, and mystery. I would like to suggest to you this evening that there is no better sacrament of the same, than the adoptee in your midst.

Thank you for your kind attention

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