Thursday, May 28, 2009

Through a Priest's Adopted Eyes - Adoption Forum 2003

Thomas F. Brosnan

Note: The Adoption Forum of Pa. held their Annual Conference “Window to the Heart of Adopting” on October 30th in King of Prussia,Pa. attended by over 150 members of the triad who participated in workshops led by professionals and members of experience.

The keynote address was presented by Father Tom Brosnan, B.A.,M.Div.,M.F.A. who is an international speaker and writer. Father Brosnan has advocated for adopted persons, who seek the same civil rights as their non-adopted peers --- access to their original birth certificates. Father Brosnan understands the search for origins as “a religious experience, a pilgrimage of self knowledge, a holy endeavor.” In September, 2001, Father Brosnan
received the Angels in Adoption Award presented by the Congress of the United States.

The following are excerpts from his incredibly poignant address.

By way of introduction my name is Tom Brosnan. I am a Roman Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY. I am an adoptee. I am not a social worker, psychologist or pastoral counselor. In other words, I am no expert. My remarks today come only from my own experience of being adopted. This presentation is, I suppose, a “confession” of sorts regarding my journey of discovering who I am; a process which, I would suggest, is the vocation of every human being, adopted or not.

My parents told me I was adopted when I was 12, though I can remember knowing since I was 5. We never talked about adoption, yet it seems to me these many years later that adoption, with all its cumbersome baggage, was the air we breathed. We never acknowledged to each other the truth about the loss each of us had suffered. We were, I believe, victims of the closed adoption system which exerts an extraordinarily powerful hold on all members of the triad. It is a cruel task master and demands untold sacrifices. It is merciless in its destructive power. Like the razed Berlin Wall that divided a city for a generation, like the dismantled statues of Lenin across the former Soviet Union, I pray for the demise of the closed adoption system. And I offer these words in the hope to effect that outcome by alerting you who are adoptive parents, adoption specialists, social workers and clergy to the dangers that secrecy and lies can wield on the family.

I wish to remind you of something you already know: that the experience of Loss and the need to Belong are universal human experiences. But none of us likes to face the pain of Loss, and we don’t like to be reminded of it in others. When we are reminded, our immediate reaction is to make it go away, to lessen its obvious import to the person, to hopelessly put a mere bandage on what is doubtless a gushing wound.

The Catholic Bishops of the United States have done just that in their recently published Book of Blessings. Among the many rituals is one entitled “Blessings for Parents and an Adopted Child”. The prayer begins: “It has pleased God our
heavenly Father to answer the earnest prayers of (this couple) for the gift of a child…” Despite the feeling of joy the words are meant to instill, there remains the unasked question, have the events which preceded this adoption ritual, namely the relinquishments of the child by his mother, has that also pleased God? What is missing is any reference to what has had to have taken place in order for this joyful blessing to occur. There is no mention, no acknowledgement of Loss, of the relinquishment that had to have occurred in order for the adoption to have taken place.

Although difficult, it is essential to acknowledge this fundamental truth about the experience of Loss in adoption. It is not easy, however, and it is not a one-shot deal. It will have to be acknowledged at different times during the adoptee’s maturing process, but I believe it to be essential in the building of strong healthy families. Acknowledging truth about Loss means first of all to give up the lies about what actually happened. It means giving up myths like the chosen baby story so many adoptees were told. It means to accept the events as are known, not fabricating explanations which we think might lessen the blow. You know what I mean: like the “your parents were killed in a car crash” story, intended to save the adoptee from the truth which we presume to be far worse: a truth like “your parents weren’t married; or, your mother was raped; or even, you’re the product of incest.” If the adoptive parents truly have the best interest of their child at heart, I would suggest that the truth is the only choice they really have in attempting to do what’s best for their son or daughter.

Not all, but many adoptive parents, come to the adoption process through the Loss we call infertility. Whether couples decide to adopt when they are first diagnosed, or whether they come to that decision only after they have endured the horrors and humiliations of the fertility clinics, once they decide to adopt they have acknowledged the terrible reality that they will never have their own children. The decision to adopt marks the moment they give up their dream of seeing “flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone.” What the infertile couple needs to do is acknowledge that the choice to adopt is their second choice. To admit to themselves that if they had their own way adoption would most likely not be a part of their lives. They choose to adopt because there is no other way to become parents.

Acknowledging the truth of Loss is also a part of the birth parents’ lives, especially the mother. I believe there is no closer relationship than a mother and her unborn child. Perhaps you saw the movie “Losing Isaiah”. Whether or not you liked the scenario, perhaps you would agree with me that even a crack-addicted woman feels that powerful bond with her child. The act of relinquishment is so wrenching an event that young women have told me that they chose to abort their babies rather than relinquish them to adoption. Some of us may judge this to be the height of selfishness, but I wonder if there is not some instinctual response involved in making that decision. No matter what the reasons for relinquishment might be, the emotional response to the act of relinquishment is analogous to abortion, an unbloody abortion if you will, but as one prominent psychiatrist has written, “a psychological abortion” nonetheless.

In my biased opinion, the greatest Loss is suffered by the adopted person. I want to make it very clear, however, that adoption may indeed be in many, many cases a wonderful blessing for all involved. It may indeed be the only merciful solution to a seemingly impossible situation. Adoption can be one of the noblest of human achievements, but for the adopted person it is always, always the result of tragic loss. I am not suggesting that the problems within the adoptive family are the result of any lack of love on the part of parents, but simply saying that we must acknowledge the truth and not believe the false premise, the myth, which suggests that love conquers all. Because love does not conquer all, love can not, love should not. “Love can neither eradicate biology,” as one writer-adoptee has put it, nor can love alter events which have already occurred. Let’s not pretend that love can or should.

Adoption is a life-long process and it is at time hard work. The adoptive parents must acknowledge the truth of their infertility not only when first adopting, but years later when their chills enters puberty and they begin to witness his or her sexual awakening with all its potential fecundity. They must face it each time their adoptive children have children. Adoption can make an infertile couple into the greatest of parents, but it can never make them fertile.

Adoption as relinquishment is a life-long process for the birth mother. I’ve met a number of birth mothers who have never had any more children; and others, like my mother, who had one child every year, year after year. Some birth mothers feel so guilty, it has been observed, they punish themselves by suppressing their fertility, while others seek to replace what was lost.

For the adoptee, life is adoption. I think this is true whether an adopted person admits it or not. There is always either an active curiosity about where you came from or a strong denial of any desire to know. If anyone asked me when I was in my teens or twenties if I wanted to know who my birth mother was, I would vehemently have said “No, of course not.” It took me over 30 years to realize what I needed to do. It is the adoptee’s dilemma of belonging and not-belonging, struggling between the need to know and misguided feelings of loyalty and gratitude.

Those of you not adopted no doubt take for granted the importance of growing up with people related to you, who look and act like you. Adoptees miss that very primal experience. I would suggest it is at the heart of the dilemma of the adopted person who feels on some level that he does not belong in his adoptive family. This does not necessarily have anything to do with either the abundance of love within the adoptive family, or lack of it. It exists quite apart from the material well-being provided by the adoptive family. In adoption groups you often hear adoptees classify themselves as “good adoptees” or “bad adoptees”. The good ones never searched while their parents were alive, the bad ones were always running away.
But when the adopted person does decide to search, he is longing to belong. The adoptee feels himself to be a literal misfit, not quite fitting in, misplaced somehow, in another manner of speaking, he feels himself to be an exile. Belonging and identity are synonymous for the adoptee, but he must initiate his search, or at least acknowledge the desire to search for his identity, in order for the healing to begin.

In the acknowledgement of the truth about Loss and the need to Belong a word must be said about Anger. The anger of the infertile couple at the loss of their dream: their intended children. The anger of the birth mother at the loss of her child: the relinquishment. In recent years, we have seen, thank God, the anger of birth fathers whose rights are so often violated in the adoption process. And most significantly, perhaps, the anger of the adopted person, who feels the extraordinary loss of parents, heritage and genetic connection.

A word of anger must be raised against what might be called the mark of illegitimacy. Society labels those born illegitimate, bastards. You may think it strange that I, as an illegitimately born individual, am ambiguous about this designation. On the one hand, I disdain the state and church for creating such a designation because of its repercussions. In order for me to be ordained as a priest, I had to request special dispensation because bastards could not receive Holy Orders. That has recently changed but the psychological effects of such a designation always remain. On the other hand, it is argued that the closed adoption system was created to protect the child from the mark of illegitimacy. If that is true (though I am not convinced it is the real reason for sealed records) then I would prefer to be labeled a bastard and be able to see my birth certificate, than continue to be denied that fundamental right. In any event, my parents were not married, and so I am born in different status. But I am in good company, and feel a certain kindred spirit with other bastards of history, and there are many: Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Pope Clement VII, to name a few.

A word of anger must also be raised against the closed adoption system and sealed records. Closed records, while purporting to insure confidentiality for the birth mother, mean that I as an adopted person have no right to my own name. Sealed records rob me of my name, my heritage, my medical history, and any connection to those related to me by blood. My question is this: Is the practice of closed adoption which separates child from mother without the child’s consent, which suppresses knowledge of family heritage and genetic connection, which refuses to reveal the child’s name even to the child himself, are these any different from the methods employed by the institution of slavery? Who can honestly deny that it constitutes, at the very least, a psychological slavery; or as Dr. Leston Havens of Harvard put it, “a psychological possession of the human being”?

And a word of anger must be raised against the myth of confidentiality. Lawyers, social workers and church officials assert that confidentiality was promised to the birth mother, and a promise given can not be breached. But then, I ask, why was my name, that is the name given to me at birth by my birth mother, that is, my birth mother’s surname, why was that name printed on the very adoption papers given to my adoptive parents, if indeed the state wished to assure my birth mother of confidentiality? Why? Because confidentiality for the birthmother was not really ever intended. It is a myth.

The adoption reform movement has attempted over the years to correct what seems to many members of the triad a terrible injustice. I would suggest that the injustice of closed adoption is based on a philosophy of life we call dualism. Dualism sees everything in black and white; everything is reduced to an either/or dichotomy. This virus of dualism invaded the psychology of adoption early on, and remains active yet: “Psychology emphasized environment rather than heredity as a more important factor in child development” Linda Burgess reminds us in her book The Art of Adoption. Parents saw the chance to erase in their adopted children the hereditary components which, it was assumed, were of dubious quality… the personality and character of the child could be molded and their adopted children would become as if born to them.

Today, as nearly daily discoveries are made in genetic research, we are coming to appreciate the great impact of heredity in human development, not only in its obvious physical results but in the psychological and even emotional temperament of the individual. And it is becoming increasingly obvious that the human person is not the isolated product either genetics or heredity, but rather the continuing result of a very complex interplay of inherited traits and environmental conditioning.

The adopted person’s search for his origins is then a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage of self-knowledge, a holy endeavor.

# # #

(Note: Father Brosnan left the podium to thunderous and prolonged applause.
This reporter wishes to extend thanks to Judith Cotton, President of the Adoption Forum for inviting our magazine to attend and for providing packets of Kleenex on every row of seats).


  1. As always with Tom, truthful, brilliant, heartfelt words. I'm only sorry I didn't attend. But having heard Tom speak and knowing him personally, I can say unequivocally, he's one amazing bastard.

  2. Bravo!

    The connection between dualism and closed adoption (and other secret ways of claiming other people's children, like gamete donations) was very apt. Spirit/matter dualism, I'd further suggest, is at the heart of the "nurture is all that matters" ideology that enables this - the body is unimportant and love is all you need.

  3. Rediscovered Fr. Tom, my former student, after 51 years this past Saturday. What a wonerful experience it was.