Thursday, May 28, 2009

Through the Window of Adoption - LA Adoption Advisory Board 1997

Louisiana Adoption Advisory Board
Through the Window of Adoption

Doubeltree Hotel
New Orleans
9-11 December 1997

A Look into the Future of Adoption
Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan

By way of introduction my name is Tom Brosnan. I am a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, where I am presently pastor of a predominantly Latino Parish in the heart of Brooklyn. For the previous ten years or so I had lived and worked with Korean Catholics in Flushing, New York. I have studied Spanish and Korean by way of immersion, living in Santo Domingo and Korea with families who spoke no English, and have come to realize that as an adopted person I feel most comfortable in places I don't belong.

First, a disclaimer concerning my presentation today. I am no psychologist, counselor or social worker; in other words, I am no expert. My remarks come from my experience concerning my own adoption and that of other adopted persons, birth parents, and adoptive parents with whom I have walked and talked over the past 15 years.

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. The title of this presentation is "A Look into the Future"; but, for the life of me, I cannot remember why I chose that title, or even if it were chosen for me. (Suffering from ADD, maybe -- like all those kids you describe who are eligible for adoption). But, as I grow older, and it becomes clearer to me that relinquishment and adoption have been the pattern of my life, I appreciate something Albert Einstein once said when nearing the end of his life -- no doubt reflecting on the meaning of this theory of relativity: "The past, the present, the future," he said, " are all illusions. Persistent illusions, but illusions nonetheless."

Let me begin then with this scenario. In 1952 a young woman of 25 known as Casey, was living in a boarding house connected with the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. She was not a music student like her roommate Sophia and the rest of the students who lived there, but was invited there because another female boarder was needed. Casey soon met a music student from Toronto named Erich, and they fell in love. She realized she was pregnant after Erich had returned to Toronto at semester's end. She visited, she pleaded, but he could not, he would not, marry her -- "for religious reasons," he said. Meanwhile another student from Peabody, a gallant young man from Virginia, who knew Casey was pregnant, offered to marry her. The other students, not knowing she was pregnant, had a bridal shower for her in the boarding house. Within a few weeks, though, she told her friends that the wedding was off-- Casey and Tom, the Virginian, decided not to marry. Becoming desperate Casey told her younger brother -- another Tom -- she was pregnant with no hope of marrying. Her brother, a Jesuit priest, arranged for her to go to New York to deliver and relinquish her baby to adoption. The priest, the boyfriend, the gallant Southerner, and her loyal roommate, Sophia, were the only ones who knew of her pregnancy. She delivered her son on January 10th, 1953 at Misericordia Hospital, then located in Manhattan, and immediately relinquished the boy to adoption. The boy lived in a foster home for six months and then was adopted by a couple from Brooklyn where he lived with them and his adoptive mother's parents in a row house in Brooklyn.

My parents told me I was adopted when I was 12, but I can remember knowing since I was 5 (though I can't remember how I found out). We never talked about adoption, yet it seems to me these many years later that adoption, with all its weight, was the very air we breathed. We never acknowledged to each other the truth about the loss each of us suffered: the loss of the baby my parents so desperately wanted but could not conceive, and my loss of a flesh and blood mother and father. We were, I now realize, victims of the closed adoption system which exerts such an extraordinarily powerful hold on all members of the triad. It is a cruel task master, demanding blood sacrifice; that is -- the sacrifice of blood -- giving up the blood connection between generations. It is merciless in its destructive power. It needs to be condemned by people of good will, exposed for the sham it is. It is really not a question of complex societal issues and the subterfuge of a rhetoric of confidentiality, but a straightforward matter of justice. We need do no other than heed the biblical revelation that the truth will make us free. The closed adoption system is a system of secrets and lies that breeds distrust and fuels fantasies, destructive to all members of the triad. I offer these words today in the hope that you, as adoption specialists, adoptive parents, social workers, and clergy, will not permit anyone to tell you that lies are better than truth, or secrets more beneficial than fact.

I think it appropriate that you hold your conference this time of year, approaching Christmas and all. Whether you are Christian or not, you are more than likely to be familiar with the Christmas narrative, which captivates us, I think, because it has all the ingredients of a good story. And, speaking of good stories, I'd like to digress a moment or two and tell you about what goes into a good story. Being brought up in an Irish household I was indoctrinated early with the boast that the finest writers in the English language were and are Irishmen. As a matter of fact legend has it that some famous Irish writers got together years ago to pool their talent and figure out just what ingredients go into the making of a good story. And they come up with three essential ingredients. They said: First, you have to have a bit of religion. Second, a touch of sex. And third, you can't forget a little mystery. Religion, sex and mystery all go into a good story. Well, this wisdom eventually filtered down into all the schools of Ireland and one day a tenth grade teacher was telling her class that these three ingredients -- religion, sex and mystery -- are the three things you need to make a good story. She said: "Class I now want you to write a story incorporating these three elements of religion, sex and mystery. Ready? Begin." Well, a minute hasn't even passed when she looks up and sees Sean Carmody in the last row, pen down, staring out the window. "What do you think you're doing, Sean?" the teacher asks. "I'm finished," Sean says. "Finished?" she says. "How can you be finished writing a story about religion, sex and mystery in just one minute? Stand up and read us what you've wrote!" Sean stood, cleared his throat and read: "My God, she's pregnant, who did it?"

Well, risking the wrath of the Puritans among us, I'd like to suggest that that is just what the Christmas story is about: faith, sex and mystery. It's about where Jesus came from -- where the body of Jesus came from. Who were his parents. And more specifically, who or who was not his father. That issue, often not examined in our approach to Christmas, is at the heart of the New Testament. For those of you who have a hard time accepting the Virginal Conception, and who might find it easier to join the ranks of a very early group of Jesus' followers known as Adoptionists (taking their name from their belief that Jesus became God's son at the moment of his baptism) -- let it suffice to say here that what is not said outright in the New Testament, but is implied in every word concerning Jesus' origins, is this: that, to his contemporaries, it was somehow an obvious fact that Joseph could not have been Jesus' father. This leaves us with only two options: either some other man was Jesus' father, or no man was his father, and he was who he was said to be.

Adoption, too, is about religion, sex and mystery. Adoption, as the adoption reformer Dr. Randolph Severson, has said so eloquently through the years, is a matter of the heart -- it is a soul experience. It's about the kindness of strangers. It's about loving someone not your own. Like the movie I happened upon the other night, channel surfing, trying to think of what I might say to you all -- One Thousand Men and a Baby -- the story about a navy man adopting a baby during the Korean War. The emphasis on the baby's mixed blood was significant to the story: being half-Korean, half-white, he would not have survived in Korean culture, making Koreans seem so cruel. But this emphasis on blood, the race one belongs to, is part of the mystery of the adopter also. It is part of the unspoken reason why the American adopts the baby -- he seeks to preserve the white blood, so to speak. You might object and disagree: reading too much into it, you might say. But wouldn't it be hard to imagine such a story being told if the baby was half-Korean and half-black? Think about it.

The adoption experience, if it is to be an integral and human experience, must face the element of the body - sex. Adoption cannot remain only in the realm of spirit, in the matters of heart, but must embrace the reality of the flesh. Where did that body come from? is The question, often unspoken but always present in adoption. A few weeks ago I was reading in the New York Times how the sale of human embryos is catching on. In a few decades perhaps, we might well be able to clone human beings, but we can't yet, thank God, just think a baby, we can't just wish a baby -- and dare I say it we can't just love a baby into existence. There must be, thank God, physicality.

And this is where the mystery part enters in. How the adoptee becomes himself -- his genes interacting with his environment: the mysterious, and I believe providential conjunction of each. The struggle of the adopted to know where he belongs and the realization that you can belong in more than one place. It is not an either/or dichotomy. I don't have to deny my birth family to be a good son to my adoptive folks. I don't have to forsake my adoptive family in order to search for my roots, my heritage, for those who look like me.
Identity is at the heart of happiness, because it is the filter through which we impose meaning on the world. That's why the orphan story -- the adoptee story -- is so intriguing to so many. Because it is a metaphor really, a sacrament of Everyman's journey to find out who he is, to discover where he belongs. Belonging is the great quest -- it is part and parcel of what it means to be human. We define ourselves by where we do and do not belong. The problem with closed adoption is that we --all of us -- are deceived into believing that I can belong in only one place, with one family. But the truth is that as an adopted person I can belong in more than one family. The law, a piece of paper, can make an infertile couple into parents, and they may even become the very best of parents. But that piece of paper can never make an infertile couple into biological parents. That's the premier example of what the term legal fiction means. At any rate, does anyone really believe in their heart of hearts that a piece of paper can eradicate biology. Of course not -- it is absurd to think so -- yet that is exactly what the closed adoption system and its proponents would have us believe.

The feeling of not-belonging begins early in the adoptee. I remember as a kid how much I loved the Superman series. I would watch reruns everyday and hope that they would replay that very first episode show how Superman came to earth from the distant planet of Krypton and how he was a adopted by the kindly Kents. Talk to adoptees and you learn that we don't have a sense of being born. We feel like we've been hatched or dropped down from some distant planet. We feel alien-ated because we feel like aliens.

The feeling of not-belonging is validated throughout an adoptee's growing up by the ever-present subliminal reality that he does not look like his adoptive family. Another TV show that I remember - well I really don't remember any particular show but the beginning of each show is emblazoned in my memory. The Patty Duke Show began every wee with Patty standing and playing in front of a full-length mirror. Then the reflection does not follow her and we realize that it is no mirror but her identical cousin all the while. When I began my search for my mother I discovered that her brother had been a Jesuit priest and had died young. He was buried at Georgetown University. One Saturday Id rove down and as chance or coincidence -or providence would have it the first priest I met when I rang the bell at the Jesuit Residence at Georgetown was Fr. Frank Dineen, who not only knew my uncle, but had been his best friend. They grew up together in Philadelphia and had entered the Jesuits together. We spent the whole day together and after dinner Fr. Dineen suggested we go to his room top look at some old photographs. As I walked into the room it suddenly hit me that this would be the first time in my life that I would be seeing someone related to me. It was a wonderful experience. I shall always remain grateful to kind Fr. Dineen for showing me a picture of my uncle.

The desire to belong has led me in a particular direction - as regards hobbies. I love to learn about different languages. I am intrigued by the sources and connections between languages, the relationships of sounds -- what they call phonemes. I'm like a kid lost in a supermarket, who, amid the hundreds of adults surrounding him can hone in on his mother's voice. Or like Jodi Foster in the not-so-good movie Contact, I wait by the radar listening for that radio wave from outer space -- proof of life.

After studying Latin and Greek in high school, I signed up for French and Russian. In College I was the only Anglo in my Mandarin Chinese class. I lived for six months in the Caribbean studying the Spanish of Santo Domingo, and then settled for a little while in Korea. When I was in high school, though, my Russian teacher -- a Ukrainian emigre -- would often call on me to read a passage from Gogol or Turgenev aloud. He said I had the most Russian accent of all his students. "You are a Slav, aren't you, Brosnan," he said more than once. "No, I'm Irish," I's insist, ashamed to tell him and everyone else that I was adopted. It's embarrassing not knowing where you come from. I wonder if he suspected anything.

I've only recently confessed to myself that in high school, each time my Russian teacher asked me to read Pushkin's Queen of Spades or Lermentov's Taman, I wondered if I was really Russian. Distant echoes of retroflexive "t's" and multiple consonants stringed together in succession -- hallmarks of Russian words: maybe they were echoes of sounds I had heard long before I had acquired language. Why do opponents of open adoption and open records have no problem admitting there's such a thing as pre-verbal memory -- except, they say, in adoptees whose memories are thought to begin only from the moment of adoption.

Adoptees are searchers, even if they never search -- even if they say they are not interested in searching. I just read James Michener's obituary a few weeks ago. Michener was a foundling, it said, though there seems to be a bit more complicated than that. At any rate Michener was asked many years ago if he wanted to search for his birth family. Michener was adamant. I have no desire whatsoever to know who my family was, he said. I'll never search. Well Michener never did it seems. But spent countless hours writing his beloved books. Books you might agree that are filled with search and getting to the bottom of things. How endlessly he writes about tracing the source of a river, or traveling back in geological time to the origins of some land mass, or tracing the roots of a family or two. Not interested in searching -- perhaps he was just too close to it emotionally that he couldn't see the forest for the trees: he just couldn't see that searching was the essence of his life.

And I couldn't be speaking here in New Orleans without mentioning Walker Percy and his great novel The Moviegoer. The final scene or so takes place not far from here at least supposedly not far from here on Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants, where the main character, Binx Bollings, is parked outside a church on Ash Wednesday (the day after Mardi Gras) when a car pulls up behind him and a black man gets out and enters the church. He comes out a bit later and Binx wonders if he has ashes -- he can not distinguish them on his black skin. He wonders what the black man wants in the white church. Is he just doing what the middle class does or does he really expect to meet God here on Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants. It is impossible to say, Binx thinks -- we are all searchers. The most important thing is that we look.

But there are obstacles to searching.

The Bishops of New Jersey for instance are the most ardent opponents of legislation to pen records to adult adopted person. By their opposition to such legislation they stake their claims with those who say that because we were adopted we have no right to see our birth certificates. But who has more of a right to know his own name and the names of his parents but the person himself. The bishops speak out of both sides of their mouth. Opposed to abortion they say that a woman's right to privacy should not insure her an abortions. While, regarding open records in adoption, they claim that a mother has a right to privacy from her own child. There's a certain hypocrisy expressed in the bishops' position. But at the very least they betray their sacred trust to guard the truth. Issuing false baptismal certificates, in effect, lying is just such a betrayal.

Another prominent obstacle to searching is the increasingly well-known talk show host Dr. Laura. Dr. Laura in my estimation is an Ann Landers with a Ph.D. I was listening to her a few weeks ago when a woman caller identifies herself as a birth mother. "I gave my baby up for adoption 27 years ago," she says. And before she can catch her breath, Dr. Laura jumps in saying, "bless you." This response, not knowing anything yet about what the woman is about to say betrays a standard bias in perceiving adoption. Bless you for giving up your baby is the contemporary equivalent to the social worker/ clergy response to pregnant unwed women in the past: if you love your child, you'll give him up. This subtle invective seems to cover over the horror of the act of relinquishment for at least those involved with the adoption. And for a while it seems to assuage the mother who is relinquishing, but it gnaws away at conscience and disturbs the mother for the rest of her life. Dr. John Sonne, a psychiatrist from New Jersey who works with adoptees terms the act of relinquishment (from the adoptee's perspective) a psychological abortion. Strong words, but I believe necessary if we are ever going to begin to break this incredibly destructive philosophy which would have us believe that a mother's love should be based on the act of giving her child away. No wonder family values seems to have eroded over the past few decades. With that kind of philosophy spouted by psychology and religion -- that if you love you will abandon -- it should be no wonder that abortion is common place and infanticide seems to be every day in the daily press.

Back to Dr. Laura. The birth mother who relinquished 27 years ago proceeded to tell Dr. Laura that she had joined a search group some time back and through the aid of an intermediary found her son's adoptive family. Then, breaking down, the woman says that her son died at age 17. She said that through the intermediary she requested to meet with the adoptive parents. They declined. "I just wanted to know something about him," she said. Now, the self-righteous and in a word, bitchy, Dr. Laura jumps in (and I remind you here these are her words, not mine) "You're the one who got knocked up back then," she tells the woman, "you made the mistake. You have to respect their wishes." The birth mother persists, her voice heavy with grief, seeking some kind of permission from this indomitable Shiva: "But, can't I contact them again," she says.

Even Dr. Laura must relent a bit at this point. "Well," she says, "go through the intermediary one more time. But if they say no., You must respect their privacy." Then the bitchiness of Dr. Laura (her may I interpret a little jealousy on the part of a woman who has only one child) "I'm tired of you all playing the victim,." she tells the birth mother. "You've got to stop acting like you're entitled. You should see the blessing in all of this. There was a family who raised your son and gave him good home. You should be thankful." Now, mind you, neither the caller nor Dr. Laura knows anything about this adoptive family. She just assumes, despite all the publicity in recent years to the contrary, that the adoptive home is a good one, that the parents are good. She doesn't question (as she no doubt would with any other call) the nature of the boy's death at 17 years of age. She doesn't remember Lisa Steinberg or the recent case of the American adoptive parents beating their prospective adoptive Russian children on the plane?

"Be a good birth mother," she seems to say. You must live with this grief. If you try to get answers you should be ashamed of yourself for interfering in the lives of the people who did you the favor of raising your son. They need only thank you for not aborting him.

Here's some language of entitlement and victim-hood that needs some exploring. Let's help Dr. Laura and the Catholic bishops take a bit of what they dish out: always blessing people for choosing life and not aborting. They seem to say bless you for making that decision when you were pregnant, but after birth you must do a complete turn-around. They imply by their attitude and words that you should reverence life till birth, then erase all connection with that child. That relinquishment document -- a piece of legal paper -- becomes sacred scripture to them. By their words and action they seem to believe that a piece of paper can and should eradicate genes and blood and all kinship connection. What kind of idolatry is that we might ask to expect and then demand a woman who has given birth to forget and not even be accorded the simple human dignity of knowing what happened to her son -- This is not simply a question of rights --though it seems clear enough that maternal rights cannot be relinquished ever completely -- but a question of human decency and people who project themselves as morally upright -- like the Catholic bishops and Dr. Laura, who ostensibly are pro-family and family values -- should try a little dose of humanity in situations such a as this. Instead they will not give even a crumb from the table of a young man's life -- the story of his first dy in school, a photograph from his high school prom, how his father taught him to ride a bike, a story about his first date, the vacations he spent with his family. but are eager to pin that scarlet letter in bolder colors on the breast of the modern-day Hester Prynne. Dr. Laura may call her self Jewish and the bishops may insist they are utterly catholic -- but they are all puritans at hearts -- Calvinists to the core -- and neither Jew nor catholic should be happy about that.

Of course these examples of obstacles are all external in a way to the adoptee or the birth parent who searches -- but what they effect is guilt, a self-loathing from within leading us adoptees to believe that by searching we betray our adoptive parents, or show ourselves disloyal and ungrateful bastards -- literally speaking of course. It's a strange kind of guilt, a neurotic guilt, which is not born of conscience but from subtle external mores like those of Dr Laura and the Catholic bishops. It's akin I think to the psychology I saw on a 60 minutes piece recently about Japanese Americans who had been placed in internment camps during WWII. Mind you they were American citizens. Some even third generation Americans. The interviewer asks about how they felt toward America for what happened to them. To a person they said they considered themselves American to the core. During their stay they had huge celebrations on July 4th and some of their number became heroes during the fighting in WWII. They seem to have incorporate into their Asian faces a certain inability to question the morality of such a decision on the part of the government. Their loyalty was to them unquestionable -- because I would suggest it was not at all obvious to those who looked at them as different. The same with the adoptee, especially he who says he has no interest in knowing where he came from. These are my parents I have no others. But he must insist because in fact he does have others. He protests loudly because he tries to convince himself that it is true. But it can not be true. Yes, his adoptive parents are his parents, but he does belong to two families. A piece of paper - a legal fiction - can not eradicate biology - thank God.

This talk was entitled A Look into the Future of Adoption, and for the life of me I cannot remember why I chose that title. But let me justify the title by just reminding you that medical technology is so rapidly developing that just a few months ago a 62 year old woman gave birth, I read in the New York Times a few weeks ago that certain hospitals are now selling human embryos for implantation -- you choose what traits you want. And human cloning no longer seems to be a subject solely for science fiction. Adoption -- open adoption principles will be in my opinion one of the few guiding lights in his exciting but morally suspect arena of human reproductive technology. No matter how far advanced we might go it will be worthwhile only if we take with us that age-old conviction that the truth will set us free - the truth, not our need to avoid uncomfortable realties, the truth is what should guide us always. Unfortunately in the United States we have had over fifty years of the unfortunate barbaric practice of closed adoption, where truth was and is sadly sacrificed and secrets and lies control our lives. Open adoption is the only light in a morass of secrets and lies. That's my look into the future.

But he way my interest in languages eventually landed me in Korea, where culture shock jolted me into taking a more serious look at my life. And I finally acknowledge that there was something missing. I saw myself for the foreigner I so obviously was. Like a soldier, missing-in-action, a pilgrim who had lost his way, I wanted roots. And so, when I returned to America, I set out on another journey -- this time to find my origins, my biological identity, the mother and father who gave me birth. When I did find my mother, she had long since married a man who was not my father, was already widowed, and had raised six other children. her ancestors -- and therefore mine -- were a mix of ethnic identities from western Europe. Born in Philadelphia, my mother had moved to Baltimore early on; and although I was happy not to have inherited her Ball-a-mo accent I was very grateful to find others related to me by blood. I finally looked like someone.

"We shall not cease from exploration," T.S. Eliot said. "And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive at where we started, and know the place for the first time."

"Your father," my mother told me, "was born in southern Russia."

Thank you for your kind attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment