Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sweetness of Second Chances - Traverse City 1999

7th Biennial Conference on Open Adoption
Minding the Adoption Community

Traverse City, Michigan
April 15-17, 1999

The Sweetness of Second Chances
Father Tom Brosnan


First I want to thank Jim Gritter for his persistence in nagging me to come to the conference this year. I had told him that I wouldn’t be able to make it because a number of different things would be coming together during these particular months and I didn’t want to feel overwhelmed. But Jim persisted, writing me nasty letters and such. Threatening to tell my bishop to order me to come. I’ve no doubt he would have resorted to blackmail if he knew of any juicy scandals to use. [Please don’t take the fact that I’m here as proof that he found one].

Truth is I sure wanted to come. But feel more than overwhelmed, still adjusting to my new job as pastor of a fairly large Hispanic parish in the heart of Brooklyn, and pursuing a commitment I made before I had this new assignment -- completing a degree in writing at the New School -- my thesis is due in a few weeks and all that. But how can anyone who has been to Traverse City not want to come back and in this lovely atmosphere with such wonderful people talk about what adoption means to us who are so involved in this mystery that holds such potential for blessing and yet remains such a source of abuse at times.

So this is part of what the sweetness of second chances is all about –I get to talk about myself – again -- to a captive audience for half an hour. But what to talk about really? The simple point I want to make is something that you will hear over and over again at this conference in various and novel ways – that adoption is a life long process, that it impacts on the lives of those it touches throughout their lives, in everyday decisions, in subtle and not so subtle ways That means whatever I choose to talk about reflects adoption, from writing this talk, to shopping at the mall, to caring for my invalid mother, to preaching at Sunday Mass, to dreaming about sex, to taking a leak in the woods – it’s all about adoption – really. So here goes -- I’m going to ramble on for the next half hour about the dead, about language and about names – and through those topics reveal a little bit more, I hope, of what it means to be an adopted person.

This conference coincides with the end of Lent and beginning of Easter in the Christian calendar. Because of my line of work, I’m a little familiar with the biblical readings used at the Sunday Liturgies during this time. I was thinking about what I might say a few weeks ago when the gospel story from St. John, the one about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, was read at Mass. I thought that Lazarus had one of the sweetest second chances of all. Imagine being dead for four days and then having a chance to go back and right what you did wrong or do that crazy thing you were too afraid to do before. It’s a shame we don’t know what happened to Lazarus: whether he went off to join the secret resistance against the Romans or proposed to the girl he was too shy to even look at before. Maybe he just finished that addition to the house or went bungie jumping off the temple mount. Whatever, I hope Lazarus didn’t blow it and really took advantage of his second chance.

Thinking of the death of Lazarus helps me muse about people who have meant a great deal to me and who are now gone. Realizing this is my third time now in Traverse City, I’ve been musing about all that’s happened in my life since the last time I was here. My adoptive father will be dead two years ago this July. When I was here last he was near the end. After he had developed Alzheimer’s, and it was impossible for me to care for him at home, I placed him in a nursing home in Coney Island in Brooklyn on the same piece of property where he had taken me every summer of my life from the time I was two until I was eighteen, to a beach club and day camp where I did my growing up and made friendships that endure till this day. After CYO Surf Club and Day Camp closed Catholic Charities built a nursing home. My father spent his last year of life unaware of having come around to where he had started, unaware of this external geography or of the geography within. He had, in a phrase, lost his place. I felt closer to him in that last year of life than I did in all the previous forty-four years. Perhaps lack of place, lack of the awareness of place, the feeling of mis-belonging, a loss of the sense of self -- was something we could finally share. The adopted are the ultimately misplaced, the classic refugee, the ones whose sense of self is out of kilter. Studies done about the effects of adoption on the person measure certain aspects of personality and psychology, but none has sought to evaluate adoption’s effect on what is known as proprioception, the sixth or hidden sense, expressed in the physiological reality of situating the self in time and space.

On the day I buried my father two years ago, the priest with whom I had been living for the previous thirteen years died after a difficult battle with pancreatic cancer. As some of you may know I had lived and worked with Korean Catholics for thirteen years. Father Thomas Jung had come to New York some thirty years ago when he was forty-five and had started a Korean Catholic community that grew into the largest in the United States. He had asked me to join him in 1985. I cannot explain the shock I felt at his death. It was a shock despite the fact that everyone expected it. Perhaps I was shocked to discover how much he meant to me – something I hadn’t realized all those years. Although he had been in America for so long, Father Jung remained essentially Korean, and without going into an explanation of the subtleties of Korean culture, suffice it to say that he treated me as a typical Korean man might treat his son -- with a certain distance and an odd mixture of sternness and gentleness. Living with him in a Korean community all those years I never felt I quite belonged, which helped me recognize that that was precisely how I had always felt -- at home knowing I didn’t quite belong. I would venture to generalize and say without qualification that all adoptees experience this whether they admit it or not.

Two other deaths which have greatly affected me happened while I was in the Korean church. One weekend in July our Sunday School Teachers went away for a weekend vacation and on the New York State Thruway had an accident. The church van flipped over and off the Thruway. Elizabeth Cha (24) and Ha-joon Chung (18) died that day. I can never forget seeing the bodies of Joon and Elizabeth in the hospital morgue, so young, lifeless and cold. That memory came back to me a few months ago when I heard the terrible news that Randy Severson’s eight-year-old son, Jacques, was killed in a car accident. Loss is perhaps the sharpest of human experiences. Every human being knows it to some degree. The adopted know it as the crust of life, as the initial experience of life, having been relinquished in order to be adopted. We’ve been told that this is precisely our second chance, this adoption effected by relinquishment, based on loss. It’s a strange take on things, isn’t it. A few years ago a ten-year-old boy acted on a dare and climbed over the fence in the Prospect Park Zoo and was mauled to death by a polar bear. At the funeral the elderly priest, a bit burnt out by life, looked at the mother and told her with the antiseptic voice of empty authority that she should be happy -- happy because her son was spared from committing any serious adult sins having died so young. A strange take on loss – but essentially no different from telling a young woman that if she really loved her baby she’d give him up, or telling an adoptee to be grateful for having been relinquished.

Religion is about second chances. I mean that’s what salvation is all about. Getting things right after you failed the first time. Whether you believe in re-incarnation or purgatory, very different theologies, they are both about second chances. Salvation means, doesn’t it, being given a second chance at something you experienced as failure. So we have the story of Original Sin – of the paradise lost by Adam and Eve. From the Christian viewpoint Christ comes to remedy the situation. Such a blessing is Christ that in the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil, when the Exultet is sung in front of the paschal candle, the deacon sings in a beautiful chant O Happy fault, o necessary sin of Adam. Cardinal Newman, the nineteenth century Anglican convert to Catholicism who still exerts a great influence over Catholic thought, wrote something about original Sin that I came across years ago before I started my search for my birth family – I remember reading it in the library and feeling my face blush because I felt he was writing about me. In his Apologia he writes in that rather stilted English of the nineteenth century:
“(If I should) Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birth-place or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, for one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being...being implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity…out of joint with the purposes of (his) Creator.”

John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit, put it this way: “The complete loss of one’s identity, is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity.” It seems to me that the only worthwhile second chance is the second chance to discover that self-identity, your place in life, from the inside out.

In the late 80’s I was volunteering at Mother Teresa’s AIDS Hospice in Greenwich Village. That was a place filled with longing for second chances. There is met Gregory Dunlop. He was only 28 and had spent nearly half his life in various prisons. After being diagnosed with AIDS Gregory was released to the hospice. Gregory was tall and slender, a prison convert to Islam. He reminded me of Malcolm X in appearance and he was just as angry and perhaps just as smart. I eventually baptized Gregory, and as was Mother Teresa’ s custom, the newly baptized would later be confirmed by a bishop. Gregory would be confirmed by Cardinal O’Connor and took the Confirmation name Antony after St. Antony, the second century hermit monk of the Egyptian desert. Gregory, having had virtually no formal education, had read St. Athanasius biography of Antony and was taken by the monk’s struggles with demons. At his confirmation Cardinal O’Connor told Gregory that he was always welcome at St. Patrick’s and if he came to Sunday Mass he should sit right up front. Gregory liked the idea and went to the cathedral one Sunday for mass. By that time he was wasting away from AIDS and looked sick. He walked into the cathedral and went to sit in the first row taking the cardinal up on his promise. No way, the usher told Gregory. Why not, Gregory says (with a few other choice words) Because today the usher says King Juan Carlos of Spain is coming and he’s to have the front seat. Gregory said that he was a king too and stormed out of the Cathedral disgusted with his newfound religion.

A few weeks later Gregory and another patient named Pedro were found by the nuns in a compromising encounter – (Mother Teresa’s hospice was worse than Puritan New England when it came to sexual matters) and Gregory was kicked out. He called me three days before Christmas to tell me that his social worker found him a one room apartment in Queens. It was his first home he said. He died the next day while walking out on the street. Gregory had no family and the nuns were notified. They, in turn, asked me to identify the body at the morgue. When I walked into the morgue at Queens General Hospital they rolled out a body covered with a white sheet, a large black foot extending from underneath with a tag on the big toe. I could have told them right then: Yes, that’s Gregory -- just by seeing his toe. I had seen his feet before – an intimacy I cherish. The attendant pulled back the sheet revealing Gregory’s sunken face, his cheekbones protruding, his mouth gaping open. His long fingers crossed his chest. Only for the accidents of birth those fingers might have played impossible classical chords on the piano or sketched the world as only he saw it. You can lose what you’ve never had. How I miss Gregory. I think I miss his anger most of all. He scarred me with his anger, but I think it reflected my own. Gregory was gentle despite his street ways. He had known over ten foster homes growing up and was once legally adopted by a white family on LI from whom he ran away and lived on the street until arrested again and again for increasingly more serious crimes. His only real home was the apartment he found on the last day of his life. At the funeral Mother Teresa’s nuns, with the lilt of their Indian-English, chanted the words of the Ave Maris Stella: “O Mary, my mother, Star of the sea/ Pray for the wanderer, pray for me. “

About two years ago I was leafing through Life Magazine and saw the extraordinary photos of recently discovered and perfectly preserved mummies in western china. They reminded me of Gregory’s lifeless body in the morgue at Queens General. These mummies of Urumchi, as they have come to be known, are believed to be nearly three thousand years old. The extraordinary thing is that they defy the accepted history of the area and challenge long held beliefs about the limitations of ancient peoples. One mummy is over six-foot tall, he has blond hair and a large nose. The author of a recent study on the mummies, herself a textile expert, concludes with an extraordinary thought – that the plaid colors and weaving patterns of the clothes the mummy wears most closely resemble the kilts worn by Scottish Highlanders. Linguists speculate that these dead spoke a language known as Tokharian. Linguists have long known that although the area is in China, Tokharian was an Indo-European language. And further, that of all the languages within the Indo-European family, Tokharian is most closely related to the Celtic languages, ancestors to Scotch and Irish Gaelic. So here’s a thought about connections: Blonde-haired mummies dressed in Scottish kilts speaking a language related to Irish buried near the T’ien Shan Mountains in the Sinjiang Province of China fifteen hundred years before St. Patrick converted the Celtic tribes to Christianity. Connections – it’s all about connections.



Second chances at finding your niche in life are offered by unexpected means. At Xaverian High School in Brooklyn I had the opportunity to wander from Latin and Greek to Russian and French. Later I would investigate Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Korean. If I get to heaven I will request to hear what Tokharian sounds like.

In high school my Russian teacher, a Ukrainian √©migr√©, would often call on me to read aloud a passage from Pushkin or Gogol or Lermentov. He said I had the most Russian accent of any of his students. “Brosnan, you are part Slav?” he asked. “No,” I said defiantly, “I’m Irish.” All the while ashamed to tell him I was adopted and had no idea where I came from. “OK he’d say, you’re Irish, but you make good Russian sounds – and besides you look like a Slav.” I later learned that in Korean, vowels are called mother-sounds – a trivial fact that makes such a deep impression on me.

Sound and voice are fascinating to me. How a child can pick out his mother’s voice in the midst of a crowd. Why infants immediately move toward their mother's voice as opposed to others. The voices that Joan of Arc heard leading her to such an adventurous and bizarre life.

Giving Voice to language and self-identity are intimately connected – a voiceprint able to identify better than a fingerprint. In a book about human evolution called the Great Human Diasporas the authors tell of an unusual discovery. “In Canada,” they write, “several members from different generations of a large family were unable to correctly form the plural of unusual nouns. If we were to ask them ‘How do you say more than one hat?’ we would receive the reply ‘hats’ without any hesitation, because the word is common. If, however, we were to explain that there is a certain animal called a ‘wombat,’ which they had never heard of, and ask them to supply the plural, they could not reply, ‘wombats.’ This means that the rule for forming plurals is missing, and it reveals the probable existence of a remarkable gene that controls the ability to form plurals or conjugate verbs.”

When I studied French in high school we listened to records in order to imitate the pronunciation. I practiced a lot and with a certain magical or religious attitude. I think I believed that the more languages I could sound with my voice the better chance I would have to find where I truly belonged. As if, by imitating French or Russian or Spanish phonemes, a pre-natal memory would kick in and I would discover my origins. I believed this but told no one, ashamed of my craziness. A few years ago I came upon the autobiography of a little known French audiologist named Alfred Tomatis, who may still be alive though he would be in his nineties. If I remember right I believe he had an adopted daughter who became a nun. At any rate Dr. Tomatis devoted his life to helping those with auditory problems and correcting speech defects. After working with several albino men he realized that speech impairment they suffered was directly linked to their skin condition. Although I was always taught the ear to be but a differentiated piece of skin, Tomatis wrote, “I discovered that it was the skin which was the differentiated ear.” An intriguing thought -- that we are literally all ear -- our bodies absorbing sound (and perhaps meaning) through every pore of skin. Tomatis also has had some success combating autism in some children by developing a machine that distorts the mother’s voice, imitating how she would have sounded to the hearing of a pre-natal child. It is nonetheless documented that the autistic child pays attention to that muffled voice while the regular voice he seldom acknowledges. I used to think St. Augustine’s explanation weird till I read Tomatis. Theorizing on the virginal conception, Augustine said that Mary conceived Jesus through the ear. Would it be blasphemous, I wonder, to imagine the voice of the powerful Archangel Gabriel taking phallic form – that voice, pure creativity, splashing against the skin of the Virgin: divinity, as it were, seeping through every pore.

When I first met my birth mother in Baltimore she was already a widow and the mother of another six. “What hospital was I born in?” I ask.
“In Misericordia,” she says. “On 86th off York.”
“You studied Latin,” she says. “What does Misericordia mean anyway?”
“Mercy,” I say. “It means mercy.”
“That’s nice,” she says.
But I don’t tell her the etymology of misericordia as heart misery. I don’t have to, I think – she seems to already know. It is perhaps the only thing we have shared all these years.
“Why did you look for me?” she asks.
I tell her, absurdly, about skin and voice and the languages I studied.
“Isn’t that nice,” she says in an old-womanly sort of way.
“Did you know,” she adds from out of the blue. “Did you know your father was born in western Russia?”

My father still denies paternity. He was born in western Russia or, at that time, it might have been Poland. It’s unclear what language or languages his parents spoke. His surname I took for German, though now I believe it was a Germanized form of a Polish name. His mother’s maiden name, though, is definitely German. I have concluded based on very skimpy evidence and a stretch in deduction that they were Mennonites who emigrated Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in the outskirts of Toronto. I want to know this history, but have not had the energy to pursue it. His name Erich Traugott fascinates me.

Names are important – especially to adoptees. Take the most famous of adoptees, for example – Moses. After Moses murders the Egyptian (was that adoptee rage?) he runs away and hears the divine voice calling him from the burning bush. Moses asks: “Who are you?” Now scholars tell us that the great revelation given in that moment is the revelation of the sacred Tetragrammaton – the divine name, the personal name of God Himself. And of course much has been made of this. But the problem is that none of these religious scholars were adoptees. If they were they would have made something of the interchange between Moses and the divine voice. Who are you?, Moses asks. I am the god of your fathers, the voice answers. And then there’s the pause – a pause just long enough for Moses’ adopted self to ask that bothersome question: which father? Are you the god of my Egyptian father or my Hebrew father? Such a question leads to other questions: who is my father, where do I belong, where does my allegiance lie. And then, after the pause, the divine voice continues identifying himself in what would become the standard handle so to speak for the Hebrew God: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.” Scholars make a big deal about the revelation of God’s personal name, but for Moses, the adoptee, the more important revelation is of who Moses is -- his true identity as the Hebrew-raised-Egyptian. And for me, with an obsession about language, I want to know in what language Moses heard the divine voice speak: Egyptian or Hebrew.

I recently met a young Australian man named Matthew who is now in the U.S. promoting his books that tell of his experience of having heard God speak to him. At dinner one night, with obvious skepticism I ask him if God had an Australian accent. Someone laughed, someone frowned as if to say don’t make fun. Matthew said it wasn’t at all like that, it was something he just couldn’t explain. Like Joan of Arc perhaps, I thought. In that wonderful scene from Bernard Shaw’s St Joan when Joan is on trial for heresy. “Don’t you know,” the English judge yells down at her. “Don’t you know the voices you claim to hear come from your imagination?” And Joan, in all her youthful innocence looks him straight in the eye and says: “Of course.” Of course the power of imagination is closest to the divine Imaginaton helps us on our journey toward self-identification – imagination is not antithetical to truth – but perhaps its greatest ally.

After I had finished studying in Korea I had been after Father Jung, my Korean pastor, to give me a Korean name – all the American missionaries who had been in Korea had one and I wanted to have one too. The day finally came when he gave me my Korean name. Can I ever adequately convey how I felt, how mythical the experience was, as if his choice of name would contain the mystery of my life, a clue to my true identity, a step closer to discovering that true self which is the object of every adoptee’s life. Father Jung was more practical than scholarly and settled for something that sounded like Brosnan. So my Korean name is a bit odd: Bu Su-nam. Now permit me a linguistic digression here. Korean names are based on Chinese patterns where each syllable is the Korean pronunciation of a Chinese character. Because Chinese is monosyllabic, distinguishing meaning by tones – and Korean is not – there are many homonyms among Korean words of Chinese origin. So I took my Korean name and chose the Chinese characters that could correspond, settling on the characters that might be translated as eternal manhood. At the same time, the odd position of the syllables give many Koreans, on first hearing it, the impression that it is a woman’s name, rather than a man’s. It could also I suppose be more freely translated as everlasting youth, which fits nicely with another foreign phrase that was so much a part of my life. Some of you older Catholics might remember the Latin Tridentine Mass. At the beginning of the Mass the priest and altar boys said the prayers at the foot of the altar. The priest began: “Introibo ad altare Dei.” The altar boys, we were eight at the time, would parrot the Latin response oblivious to its meaning: “Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meum -- I will go to the altar of God, to the God who gives joy to my youth.”

“I named you Thomas for my brother,” my mother told me when I first met her.
Her brother was a Jesuit priest who died very young and whose grave I once visited at Georgetown University. Names, I believe help us discover who we are, that points us toward a certain destiny, and shape our desires. Self-identity is the object of every person’s life adopted or not. “For never,” the great St. Teresa of Avila, mystic and religious reformer would write: “For never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything more fitting than self knowledge.” The journey toward identity is the holiest journey we take, it is a sacred pilgrimage, requiring our all.

I was angered and very disappointed recently when I read that the American Catholic Bishops voted to implement the practice of issuing amended baptismal certificates for adoptees. Without getting too technical suffice it to say that if implemented adoptees will no longer have any recourse to know the names with which they were born and baptized through the baptismal registers in Catholic churches. I wrote to several bishops and cardinals and the appropriate Roman authorities. Only one bishop seems to have had the candor to say that the reason behind the change in policy was a fear of lawsuits. So, if approved by Rome, Catholic churches in the United States will issue baptismal certificates for adoptees claiming they were baptized with names with which they weren’t, in churches they and the parents who gave them birth never saw. Secrecy is the heart of bureaucracy, Simon Weil wrote. What a shame that fear and secrecy and lies must even desecrate those things meant to be holy and therefore truthful. That’s a real shame and makes me angry betrayed by those who are supposed to protect and safeguard the truth end up distorting and falsifying. The American bishops seem to have forgotten how important names are. Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb that day – by name. An essential element of the story.


Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the darkness of the tomb to the light of day. Lazarus is awakened and given a second chance at life. Awareness, consciousness, being awake – that’s what we really desire. In the Odyssey Odysseus finally reaches his home after many years of being lost , a wanderer. All the time Penelope his wife is being pursued by suitors. The chief suitor is called Antinous. In Greek the name Antinous literally means against mind, against consciousness. In the last scene of the book Homer describes in very gory detail how Odysseus kills Antinous. The hero is awake when he can slay the enemy – the one who tries to keep him asleep and unaware. In Lynn Franklin’s recent book May the Circle Be Unbroken, she quotes Carl Jung as saying “Emotion is the chief source of all becoming conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.” In the gospel it says that Jesus is moved with the deepest emotion and then calls Lazarus forth from the tomb. I’d like to suggest to you today that our movement into the mysteries of Open Adoption and away from the tomb built on secrecy and sealed records is nothing less than Odysseus slaying Antinous, and Jesus commanding the onlookers that day to untie Lazarus and let him go free. Let us continue minding the Open Adoption Community with a vibrant emotion.

That’s my reflection on the Sweetness of Second Chances -- something I wish for each of you.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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