Nicole Chung’s Memoir “All You Can Ever Know” and the Future of Adoptee-Focused Literature

“All You Can Ever Know,” a beautiful memoir by Nicole Chung, was published October 2 and is already in its fifth printing. The book had been glowingly reviewed all over the map: the New Yorker, Boston GlobeSeattle Times, Buzzfeed, NPR,  and many more, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and from Library Journal.

Nicole is on a book tour that includes chatting with Trevor Noah TONIGHT on The Daily Show. Seriously. I am guessing she is the first transracial adoptee to be on the show.

It’s all off the charts, really. And here’s the thing: it’s well deserved for a book that is nuanced and elegant, telling a story that is woven carefully around family, race, adoption, and the complexities thereof. As the Washington Post noted, “Chung’s search for her biological roots, after being raised in Oregon by white parents who adopted her from Korean parents, has to be one of this year’s finest books, let alone memoirs. Editor in chief of Catapult and former editor of the Toast, Chung has literary chops to spare and they’re on full display in descriptions of her need, pain and bravery.”

There’s not really much I can add to what so many others have already said.

Still, as an adoptive parent (and we ap’s are really good at holding the mic in the adoption community), I will offer this: It’s a beautifully crafted memoir, a carefully balanced story of an adoptee’s efforts to find her way in the world, and especially to find her truth. Nicole’s reflections on her pregnancies, her birth mother, her adoptive mother, her daughters, and her sisters are candid and heartfelt. There are questions and loose ends and tangles and more questions. She’s a Korean adoptee not born in Korea. She loves her white adoptive parents and has struggled with racism and privilege. Perhaps the best part of her search and reunion journey has been the deep bond with the sister she found as an adult.

The memoir reminded me that, as an adoptive parent, as much as we deeply love our children, if we are not adopted ourselves, we cannot fully understand what it means to be adopted. If we are white, we cannot fully understand what it means for our children to be and grow up as people of color. We must acknowledge and not dismiss or minimize those truths. We must listen and learn—and read and talk.

That the book has been wildly successful does not surprise me: Nicole is a highly accomplished writer and editor. (Full disclosure: she was my editor at Catapult for my article “How My Daughter’s Pregnancy Made Me Rethink Adoption.”) The reviews, the tour, and the acclaim are deserved.

Here’s my hope: Nicole’s book (and all the accompanying attention) will open even more doors for adoptees to write and publish their stories, whether they are happy, frightening, shocking, sad, or even mundane. “All You Can Ever Know” will find a solid niche as Asian-American literature as well as adoption literature as well as mother lit and memoir. Some adoptees will embrace Nicole’s story as resonant for them; some will have had a polar opposite experience. We all need to hear the wide and fascinating range of adoptee stories, told not by their adoptive parents, but by the adoptees themselves.

I’d be remiss if I did not say that there will soon be news about the anthology by Ethiopian adoptees from 7 countries,  “Lions Roaring, Far From Home.” I am one of the editors, and while there have been significant, unanticipated delays, we are moving ahead toward publication.

Brava, Nicole! Your book is a gem. I hope you get some rest along the roller coaster of a book tour. I hope John Cho loved the memoir. I hope you continue writing (I know that’s not an issue), and I know that the rest of us will continue enjoying and learning from your stories, your candor, and your generous soul.

With Nicole at her reading at Seattle Public Library, October 4, 2018.

Tell Trevor I said hello.

 

 

 

While “All You Can Ever Know” has received amazing attention and reach, there are many other books written by adoptees as well, and hopefully even more in the future. Be sure to check out AdopteeReading.com for “books written and recommended by adoptees.”

How great if we had a large collection of books by birth mothers and birth fathers as well, from around the world,

Awakening from “Woke”

My daughter Aselefech (an Ethiopian adoptee, almost 30 years old, raised by her white dad and me) asked me why I was doing so much race-related reading and writing and attending of events these days. She knows I was raised and educated with a solid social justice lens. I lived 30+ years in a predominantly black county. I am the mother of 4 black now adult children, plus a black-Latinx granddaughter. I am (relatively) woke.

With all that, at 60, I am realizing how much I don’t know, how much I don’t deeply understand about race (maybe intellectually but not in other ways), how much better I need to unpack my backpack of racist thought, and how much more I need to do besides having a “Black Lives Matter” sign on my front lawn.

I’m reading (fiction: The Hate U Give  by Angie Thomas (my granddaughter’s black teacher gave the book to to my granddaughter, who’s going into 6th grade); non-fiction: So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo). I’m attending workshops (A couple weeks ago, Confronting White Womanhood; This week, “Did That Just Happen?! Casual Racism at Work,” and “Breaking Down White Fragility with Robin DiAngelo”). I’m perusing The Root,  Color of ChangeThe African American Literature Book Club, Very Smart Brothas, and more.

And of course, I need to better understand the experiences of Asians, LGBTQI folks, Native  Americans, and other marginalized, oppressed groups. I need to understand intersectionality. And I need to stay focused and not get overwhelmed, thus giving up on any of it. I cannot do it all. That’s okay.

I am talking with friends and family of color, while bearing in mind it’s not their job to educate me.

I am working on understanding clearly what cultural humility, systemic oppression, and allyship are, and being able to express my views with clarity, confidence, and respect.

I am practicing not hopping on too high a horse about how much I am learning—it’s a pony just now. I want to share, I’m enthusiastic, and I recognize I need to step back, whether with white people or people of color.

And of course, I’m doing this while working, writing, doing laundry, gardening, walking the dog, grocery shopping, watching Netflix, and staying on top of my connections with family and friends. I am juggling many items, and dropping no small quantity. I am way behind in many areas. Waaaay behind.

I ask forgiveness of others as well as of myself, and keep moving. Keep reading and discerning. I am recognizing the complications of race, the devastating history of racism, and the entrenched “well-intentioned but with damaging impact” views that I hold. I am beginning to understand the role of anger, the delicate balance of politeness and demand for change, the times when I should offer and not offer to help.

I am doing this for my children, for my grandchild, and for their grandchildren. I am doing this for me. I am doing this because I’m a nice white lady who holds power. I’m doing this because I finally realize I am overdue in doing this. I need to talk the talk, walk the walk, stay in my lane, and extend myself beyond my comfort.

It’s time.

I’ll close with this excerpt from “Do You Think You’re ‘Woke’? It’s Not a Compliment” by John Vercher.

“Woke” is tired.

It’s tired because it’s so very tiring.

Chances are, though, I don’t mean “woke” the way you think I do. It means something far different for people of color than it does for well-meaning white people who use the term to describe themselves.

It means that we can’t afford not to think that this brutal extinguishing of life was racially motivated, at the peril of our lives. We must, quite literally, be awake to the very possibility that it could happen to us at any moment. To be woke is to take the word at its original definition. To enter every situation, no matter how mundane, with eyes wide open.

And to know that that still might not be enough to stay safe.

…Woke isn’t self-celebratory. To see it as such makes it the new “open-minded.” It makes its opposite the default, makes closed-mindedness and racism the norm.

To be truly woke today is, without hyperbole, physically and emotionally exhausting.

Today, when the police are called on black men and women for cookouts in public places, “excessive fouls” during pickup basketball games at the gym and using the wrong coupon at a drug store.

Imagine, just in the space of reading this, what it would be like to second-guess your every action when you leave your home.

To not listen to that new podcast, that audiobook, that new single while riding the bus because having your headphones in might decrease your awareness of your environment.

To keep your driver’s license and registration visible and accessible at all times so that it never appears that you’re reaching for anything.

To wonder if a look towards someone will be interpreted the wrong way. If you should say hello or keep your eyes forward.

To question whether or not you should wait for a train.

It might seem impossible to you. Sometimes it feels like it is.

If you’re someone who considers yourself an ally, if you’ve ever referred to yourself as woke, and while reading this you felt discomfort for even a moment, then use that feeling to redefine the term as it applies to you.

It’s not about the television shows you tell people you watch, the books you tell people you read or the causes you tell people you support.

It’s about what you do when no one is watching. Speaking up when you witness injustice, from racial jokes to verbal attacks to physical intimidation. Be aware of the devastating impact of those acts, both physically and mentally, to marginalized communities so that you can take action without thought or need for gratitude or celebration.

Because you’ll have that gratitude, and you’ll be celebrated by the people to whom it matters most, even if we don’t have the opportunity to tell you directly.

Being woke, being open-minded, isn’t a compliment. It doesn’t make you exceptional. It makes you human.

Why Are Adult Adoptees So Often Afterthoughts In Adoption?

It’s a pattern of sorts. An issue arises around adoption, domestic or international. Adoptive parents, most often white and well-off, are featured prominently, if not exclusively, in media. Most have very young children. No one apparently thinks that maybe adult adoptees should be included in the conversation.

A recent Twitter dustup reflected this reality. Elizabeth Archer, a British mother of two young children (one by birth and one by adoption), tweeted that she was putting together a series of books, called Attitudes to Adoption, for prospective adopters.  She asked for contributions from grandparents, mothers, fathers, birth families, professionals, and foster parents. “All have an adoption story to tell,” she wrote.

Except, apparently, adoptees.

When Archer was called out for the exclusion of adoptees, she tweeted, “At present I don’t feel I have the resources to do a book about adoptees but if you know of enough people who are willing to contribute then I will take this back to my publisher!” Here’s the problem: she’s not a grandparent, a birth parent (who placed a child for adoption), or a professional either, but she had the resources for those categories.

She got pushback from several adoptees, and I (an adoptive parent) chimed in as well. Archer responded to the comments, saying “I’m just an ordinary mum trying to write some books. I’m raising my own little adoptee so I would never be against sharing their views.”

Adoptees tweeted to her. @housewifeabroad wrote, “To write books about adoption with no input from adoptees will set these further families up to be blindsided by feelings and behaviors which are completely predictable.”

@SheWolfofEng wrote, “Isn’t the most important voice in adoption the voice of the adoptee?”

@neithskye wrote, “This wasn’t an ‘oversight’ at all. This was deliberate silencing. They might not like what we have to say. *How* do you discuss adoption and ‘forget’ about adoptees?”

@SunnyJWriter wrote, “It might be best if you considered the voices of #adoptees. For many years, we’ve been overshadowed by perspectives such as the one you’ve shared. You have an opportunity to help an enormously misunderstood and marginalized population, instead of ones already covered.”

Several adoptees were reported and blocked on Twitter by Archer and others.

After the Twitter pushback, Archer posted on her Facebook page, “I never realized until now what cyberbullying could feel like,” with a sad face emoji. “Guess I underestimated the hate that is out there aimed at adopters from adult adoptees. Feeling a bit vulnerable.”

She was consoled by many, who offered big hugs and condolences. “It’s so easy for cowards to sit at a keyboard and spout utter rubbish to make themselves feel better. Rise above it…you have a life & clearly they don’t.” Archer notes that she “blocked and reported the most venomous ones.” Another supporter wrote, “They’re from a different generation—much has changed since then, not least of all the type of children needing families.” Archer wrote, “I really do feel for the adoptees. Their adoption journey must have been one of great sadness & heartache to live them feeling so full of hate.”

As it turn out, Archer now has an “Adoptees” book in the mix of the “Attitudes to Adoption” series. The missing resources she had tweeted about earlier in the day were found.

Yesterday on her Facebook page, Archer wrote that she is “currently taking a break from Twitter after being targeted by a group of (mainly American) Adoptee Activists.”

I am not sure why citizenship mattered, but there we are.

Archer earlier deleted several comments by adoptees on her Facebook page, though to her credit, she left a post by Holly Lysne, an adoptee who is also an adoptive and biological mother, directing Archer to the podcast Adoptees On, which is a wonderful (based in Canada) resource for adoptees to share their experiences, and for adoptive parents to listen and learn. I recommended Dear Adoption, which is also a tremendous resource. Catherine Johnston, an adoptee and adoptive parent, recommended The Lost Daughters, also a brilliant resource, but Catherine’s comment was deleted from Archer’s page.

Other vibrant adoptee-centric sites would be The Declassified Adoptee, The Adopted Life, I am AdoptedI Am Adoptee, Adoptee Restoration, The Rambler Adoptee Podcasts, Adoptees Connect, and Adoptee Reading. These are U.S.-based, I realize, but, Internet. Out of the Fog is based in Canada.  Intercountry Adoptee Voices is based in Australia, and includes a long list of global adoptee led groups, including in the UK. The writings and talks by Lemn Sissay come to mind, of course, for a British adoptee.

My list is by no means exhaustive. Please feel free to add your recommendations in the comments. I am not trying to omit anyone—just want to get this post out there.

So here’s the point. There is no shortage of information, perspectives, insights, and resources by adult adoptees, but all too often, adoptive parents and media ignore them, or don’t know about them (!), when discussing adoption. That has to stop.

A few final thoughts:

How is it that adoptive mothers of young children are considered experts on adoption? Nope, sorry. You need to have a couple of decades of parenting under your belt to truly understand what it means to be an adoptive parent.

We adoptive parents must stop clutching our pearls when we hear about negative, difficult perspectives on adoption as spoken by adoptees. Dismissing them as cowards or venomous doesn’t make their experiences any less valid; it slams the doors on some really important conversations.

Many adoptees had great childhoods, deeply love their adoptive parents, their parents love them, and still the adoptees struggle with the losses in adoption, which can manifest in many ways over a lifetime. Other adoptees had horrific experiences. All these voices have been marginalized for much too long around the globe.

Thick skin is needed for anyone speaking out or writing in Adoption Land. If Ms. Archer felt she was a victim of cyber bullying and needed to block adoptees (plus get consolation and hugs), she ain’t seen nothing yet.

Adoption and raising adopted children takes a commitment to deep listening and learning,  especially to those who have been adopted.

 

(Need more examples? You can find my posts about the exclusion of adoptees by NPR here and here. My post about a White House international adoption petition that had little inclusion of adult adoptees is here.)

Adoptive Parents: How Can You Best Participate in National Adoption Awareness Month?

By insisting on letting the voices of adoptees and of first/birth parents be heard.

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, an event which, like adoption itself, is far more complex that it may seem on the surface.

The word “awareness” is pivotal. Originally, the month was intended to bring focus to the need for adoptions from foster care. That focus, like the original intent of the adoption tax credit, has grown much larger, blurrier, and even controversial. What could be controversial about adoption, you ask? Children in families, feel good narratives, tear-jerker holiday specials, cute videos, win-win. Here’s the thing: there are valid elements in all that. There are also harsher realities that are often excluded in the understanding of the adoption mainstream, and we all have to be willing to look at and acknowledge them, perhaps especially this month.

Photo © Maureen McCauley

So, as an adoptive parent myself, I urge adoptive parents to look for and listen especially to the voices of adult adoptees and of first/birth parents this month.

Here are a few sites, in random order. There are many more. I’ll be posting more though the month, as well as interviews with adult adoptees and with first/birth mothers.

Dear Adoption (Essays by adoptees)

Lost Daughters generally, and about #flipthescript specifically (A collective of women writers who were adopted or fostered)

AdopteesOn (Podcasts of interviews with adopted adults)

The Adopted Life (Blog and more by a U.S. transracial adoptee; subject of Closure documentary)

I Am Adoptee (Resource group created by adoptees for adoptees)

Musings of the Lame (Blog by a U.S. birthmother)

Saving Our Sisters (Family preservation site working with women considering placing their children for adoption)

Anti-Adoption (Facebook group focused on publicly exposing the problems in adoption)

Only Black Girl (Blog of U.S. transracial adoptee)

Adoptee Rights Campaign (Advocating for U.S. citizenship for all international adoptees adopted to the U.S.)

First Mother Forum (Where first/birth/real/natural mothers can talk and vent)

There are many more. I urge adoptive parents to use this month to learn, to feel uncomfortable and challenged, and to seek ways to educate themselves and others about the full breadth of adoption.

Remembering Hana Alemu Today, and Reflecting on the Murders and Suicides of Adoptees

Six years ago today, on May 12, 2011, 13-year-old Ethiopian adoptee Hanna Williams, born Hana Alemu, died from hypothermia and malnutrition in the backyard of her adoptive home. In September of 2013, her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were convicted of her murder, and will be in prison for decades to come.

While many of us adoptive parents of Ethiopian children have mourned her death, I don’t think we can underestimate the impact Hana’s death has had in Ethiopia. The news of her death made headlines there, and the subsequent trial and sentencing of her adoptive parents reverberated in many corners and conversations in Ethiopia. The circumstances that led to Hana’s death–the isolation of eating outside from the rest of the family and not being allowed to participate in Christmas or birthdays, the punishments of water on sandwiches and frozen vegetables for dinner, having her head shaved for cutting the grass too short, having food withheld as punishment, being forced to shower outside, being hit for failing to stand the right way, and being locked in a small, dark closet for hours at a time–are harrowing at best. The jury at the parents’ trial agreed that the treatment met the standard of torture, and that is not an easy legal standard to reach.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

For Ethiopians in government and in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, for the average Ethiopian aware that thousands of Ethiopian children were sent each year to other countries for adoption, and for the Ethiopian parents who have placed children for adoption, the news of Hana’s life and death after only three years in America was heartbreaking and infuriating. My sense is that her death has been an undercurrent in considerations of policy changes regarding international adoption from Ethiopia.

We can say it was a rare case, and that’s true. It does not give solace. There may be some resolution in knowing that Larry and Carri Williams will be in jail for over 20 more years. That knowledge though is tempered by the fact that Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child they adopted and abused, will probably be haunted for the rest of his life by the trauma of his time with them. Their 7 biological children, who witnessed the abuse and testified about it at their parents’ trial, have also been badly damaged by the abuse and the death–which several of them witnessed–of Hana.

None of us can know what went on in Hana’s mind and heart as she endured the cruelty of the people who were supposed to love her and keep her safe. Three-year-old Hyunsu O’Callaghan, adopted from Korea, was killed by his adoptive father about four months  after he arrived in the United States. Hana and Hyunsu’s fates crush the popular narrative of adoption: the orphan in search of a family, the parents who take her in, the happy life then lived by everyone.

Another crushing blow to the fairy tale narrative is the reality and tragedy of suicide in the adoption community. Again, yes, it is rare, for which we are all grateful. Still, when we hear about the death by suicide of adopted persons, especially for example the suicide of a 14-year-old Korean adoptee just 11 days ago, all of us in adoption need to look at ourselves and what we are doing to educate and help.

I don’t know if there is a unique poignancy to the deaths of adoptees, but it feels that way. Adoption is supposed to mean a better life, right? That can be true (depending how you define “better”), but another larger and vital truth is that adoption follows loss. Loss can also be trauma. Adoption can be full of love and equally full of deep sorrow and grief. Many people struggle with depression and anxiety, and as a society, we are still reluctant to recognize those struggles as real. As an adoptive parent, I have known many adoptees, both young children and adults, who wrestle with depression that may well be rooted in having been adopted. That’s true for people growing up in deeply loving families who provide all available resources for mental health challenges, as well as for those whose adoptive parents are abusive. For those who get help, the struggle can still be difficult. For those who don’t, it can be excruciating. Add in the complexity of growing up as a person of color in our racist society (much of which does not/will not believe we live in a racist society), the bullying which has aways existed but is exacerbated by social media, the lack of racial mentors/mirrors/role models for adoptees, and a history of neglect and abuse prior to adoption, and it’s easy to see how a delicate balance can be tipped into despair and worse.

Please let me offer some takeaways from these haunting deaths:

Adoption is rooted in loss, in the cases of infants placed at birth with adoptive parents, in the cases of children removed from abusive or neglectful situations, and in the cases of adopted children who grow up with loving families. It doesn’t mean therefore all adoptees are doomed to despair and ruin. It does mean that as adoptive parents, we must be aware of the role that trauma and loss can play as our kids grow up, and even well into adulthood.

The screening process for prospective adoptive parents must include serious discussions about possible struggles with depression and anxiety for adoptees. Parents need to hear directly from adopted persons about their struggles. Anyone involved with preparation for prospective adoptive parents and with counseling of parents and adoptees must step up their services prior to adoptive placements to encourage families, after placement, to reach out for help and not live in isolation, as the Williams’ family essentially did. There is no shame in asking for help in difficult circumstances, whether children or parents are struggling.

Everyone, with or without a connection to adoption, should file away the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. If the Def Jam artist Logic can release a song about it, the rest of us can surely keep the phone number, share it when needed, and learn about suicide prevention. There are many resources available to anyone considering suicide and to anyone who fears that someone may attempt suicide.

And please do not think I am ignoring the needs of first/birth parents, and the loss and trauma that they experience. While my focus here is on Hana and other adoptees after an adoptive placement, I recognize that first/birth parents also need support and resources for depression or other challenges post-placement.

I keep Hana in my heart. What happened to her should never have happened to any child. The notion of children dying by suicide is wrenching as well. I know many adult adoptees are especially grieving the loss of their young counterparts, and looking for more ways to help. We need to keep conversations open, especially around adoption, depression, and loss. We need to acknowledge the pain and complexity, to speak up for vulnerable children, and to offer help to struggling families.

 

Rape, Race, Education: How Justice Failed a Black Adoptee

The judge says it was not a rape case, nor was it about racial bias. While the determination of rape may be legally correct, the case was assuredly about race.

On February 24, Idaho Judge Randy Stoker sentenced a white high school football player, John RK Howard, to probation and 300 hours of community service for an attack in which a black, developmentally disabled teen (also on the football team) was lured into a hug with a teammate, and then another teammate shoved a hanger in the teen’s anus. Howard kicked the hanger further into the teen. Howard was initially charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, and ultimately pled guilty to a lesser charge of felony injury to a child.

The black teen is a transracial adoptee. It’s taken me a few days to post about the case, given its tragic outcome. While there certainly can be gains in adoption, there is also loss, and this young man has lost a great deal.

I cannot imagine the psychological and physical pain the young man has endured as a result of that vicious incident. My sense is that he was struggling to fit in, as a black person in a tiny almost all white, Idaho town, thinking that the football players were his friends, putting up with bullying and taunts because he wanted to be accepted in a football-focused town.

Probation and 300 hours of community service seems an astonishingly light punishment for the perpetrator. What a message it sends to a locker room culture that tolerates, if not encourages, violence and racism.

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Equally disturbing, though, are remarks the Judge Stoker made about the case as he discussed his rationale for sentencing.

Stoker said it was not a rape case. I am not a lawyer, but I am guessing that this perspective is based on Idaho’s sexual assault laws that say rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the anal (or oral or vaginal) opening with a penis. Stoker said, “This is not a rape case. This is not a sex case…Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual. It wasn’t appropriate.”

No, inserting a hanger in someone’s anus is not appropriate. It should be criminal.

Stoker also said this “was not a case about racial bias.” Speaking to Howard, the judge, a 66-year-old white man, said, “If I thought you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”

It’s hard to see the judge’s statement as anything but naïve, disingenuous, and dangerous.

Howard and other members of the Dietrich High School football team, in a town of 335 people, had taunted and bullied the victim for months before the October 2015 event. One documented pre-season incident, not directly connected with this case, reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wrote about it here: Battle Royal: Racism, Football, and an Adoptee in Idaho.

But this case, says Stoker, was not about racial bias. Stoker may well be a qualified judge (elected to the district court since 2007). His understanding of racial bias, though, is, and I am being polite, sorely lacking.

“The coaches admitted the victim was called fried chicken, grape soda, and Kool-Aid, but only because he said he liked those things.” (You can see video of the judge’s comments here.) Judge Stoker then said, “I don’t think that’s a racial slur. If it is, I guess I’m not very educated.”

I guess not. Those are all slurs, longstanding and historic. Here are a few explanations:

Making Fried Chicken and Watermelon Racist

Judge says Dietrich locker room crime was not racially motivated.

Where Did That Fried Chicken Stereotype Come From?

The judge might want to take a look at Code Switch and Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race. He might have more free time to peruse these things, as there is a change.org petition with over 166,000 signatures calling for his removal from the bench.

This is not a case entirely about race, I realize, though white privilege is absolutely at its core. At the end of the day, it is about the horrific, violent way one young human being treated another young human being. It is about how power and privilege play out when racial slurs are considered nicknames, when a vulnerable youth is abused verbally and otherwise yet school officials look away, and when bullying becomes physical violence in a locker room. Make no mistake, though: race plays a central, painful role here.

Imagine if it were your child, wanting to be part of the team, who was so violently violated. Learn, act, and do not look away.

 

Is Randall Pearson A Grateful Adoptee? Is That A Good Thing?

When my kids were little, I used to hear fairly often how saintly and noble and exceptional I was for having adopted. I don’t know if it was because of the choice to adopt, or because the adoptions were transracial, or because my daughters were six years old when they arrived from Ethiopia: clearly, different folks were motivated by different reasons. Their dad and I got comments like “How lucky these children are!” and “I could never do that!” I guess “that” was adopting, or white people adopting black children, or adopting older children—I don’t know. We would accept, demur, and deflect the ostensible compliments.

It took me a while to understand the impact of the remarks about the luck of the kids and the saintliness of us parents. I felt fortunate—I wanted kids, and these four are blessings—don’t most parents feel that way? But in adoption, there’s always an undercurrent of rescue, which is a step away from saving, and from saviorism, a word often preceded by “white.”

The object of a rescue is often understandably grateful. People who are saved from some dire outcome are grateful.

Ergo—adoptees are supposed to be grateful.

And that is a complicated, contentious, disturbing, problematic statement, one which is often discussed in many an adoption circle.

We can all be grateful to our parents, especially if they have been kind and good to us.

But should adoptees be grateful they were adopted? Were they truly saved from a dire outcome?

Do they owe us, their adoptive parents, a special note of gratitude for having “chosen” them, and raised them?

Is adoption a kindness, one that our adopted children should thank us for?

“This Is Us,” a series on NBC, resonates with many in the adoption community, especially transracial adoptees and their adoptive parents. (Spoiler alert) When Randall became the replacement child for the triplet who died, the Pearson family had no idea what awaited any of them. A kind doctor arranged for the white parents to take the abandoned black baby home from the hospital with them in 1980. Now, in 2016, Randall is 36.

The final episode of this season’s “This Is Us,” a show which I have been enamored with, takes place on Christmas Eve. There is a flashback scene where, coincidentally (this is a show that thrives on coincidences), the doctor who delivered Randall’s siblings (and gave Randall to the family) is in the hospital at the same time that Kate (Randall’s sister) is undergoing an appendectomy. The kids are all around 10 years old.

The Pearson parents, Jack and Rebecca, tell the kids that Dr. K was responsible for their family, and now, since Dr. K’s family can’t get to the hospital, “tonight we’re gonna be his” family.

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Randall meanders into the gift shop, and buys a snow globe for Dr. K. In presenting the globe to the doctor, Randall says, “My dad said you’re the reason they adopted me. So thank you.”

I know firsthand there were some adopted adults whose eyebrows went up and hearts sank at that line.

 

Dr. K is kind and complimentary about the snow globe, and about his role in the adoption. “Only thing I did that day was nudge a man in a direction he already wanted to go.”

A sentiment that unwittingly speaks to the lack of agency by the adoptee, omits the role of the mom, and is silent on what direction Randall’s birth parents may have wanted to go in.

Dr. K goes on to say to Randall, “If at some point in your life, you find a way to show somebody else the same kindness that your parents showed you, well, that’s all the present I need.”

Adoption as kindness: there’s a much bigger picture, and I recognize that many folks don’t want to hear it, think I’m being negative, and wish I would lighten up.

I love my children beyond words, and I know that my joy has come at a price, for them and for their first families. They love us, their adoptive parents, deeply. Each has experienced and dealt with loss and trauma differently. Their view of gratitude around adoption is multi-layered, and theirs to express.

I don’t think my children should be grateful to be adopted. Maybe they should be appreciative and thankful for sacrifices their dad and I have made for them, but that’s what parents are supposed to do. We hope they will do their best for their children.

But adoption is based in loss. It’s supposed to take children from a bad situation into a “better” one, and sometimes that happens. Adoption should certainly be an option for abused and neglected children, when parents can’t or won’t take care of their children and keep them safe. Adoption shouldn’t be a permanent solution to a temporary situation, when, with a little help, parents could raise their children. Adoption can be positive and powerful, when done with transparency and integrity.

As an adoptive parent, I am often stunned at how rarely the losses (or existence) of birth parents are mentioned, as well as the grief that adopted children/adults may experience as a result of having been adopted.

To its credit, “This Is Us” has a strong birthfather story line. On his 36th birthday, Randall found his birthfather William, and it turns out that William had desperately wanted to know his son. Rebecca, Randall’s adoptive mother, closed that door for 36 years. (Randall is now in danger of going from a grateful adoptee to another stereotype, an angry adoptee. The writers of “This Is Us” have a lot on their plate.)

I both understand and despise Rebecca’s choice in cutting William off. As a white, middle class, non-drug addicted parent, she held the power. (Indeed, we white, well-educated, non-addicted parents have traditionally held the power in adoption, and have often been considered saviors and rescuers of our children, especially of brown and black children, and of orphans. What a burden that places on our children.) She exercised her power, and it was not a kind decision. I hope the show continues to unpack the nuance and heartache of what seemed “best” to her.

I hope also that those who were a bit teary at that scene of Randall expressing thanks with the snow globe realize that tears fall for many reasons in adoption, and not necessarily for gratitude or kindness.

 

Here are some adoptees’ perspectives on the complexity of gratitude in adoption:

 http://the-toast.net/2015/11/19/adoption-and-toxic-gratitude/

http://www.declassifiedadoptee.com/2013/02/who-is-entitled-to-my-gratitude.html

http://www.thelostdaughters.com/2015/04/dear-adoptive-parents-burden-of-adoptee.html

How My Granddaughter Changed My Perspective on Adoption

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2011 Reunion in Ethiopia. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

I am pleased to have an article on Catapult.co today, titled “A New Light: How My Daughter’s Pregnancy Made Me Rethink Adoption.”

I am the parent through adoption to four amazing, wonderful, beloved children, now all in their late 20’s. When my daughter Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia when she was 6, became pregnant at 17, all our lives were changed. I had worked in adoption professionally for several years. I couldn’t imagine, though, even before she was born, my granddaughter being placed for adoption.

 

 

My article includes the story of my daughter’s re-connection with her Ethiopian mother. My granddaughter is her granddaughter as well, always and in all ways that matter.

I have often spoken out about how first/birth parents deserve far more support and resources than they currently receive, and that their voices are among the most marginalized in adoption. I have also spoken out about the need for greater emphasis on family preservation. There surely is a place for ethical, transparent adoptions, and there surely are children who will benefit. That said, we need to do a better job of supporting those mothers and fathers who want to keep their children, and of providing resources and communication for those who do place their children.

My eyes were opened in many ways because of my daughter’s pregnancy and my granddaughter’s birth. A decade later, and we have all met/reunited with my daughters’ Ethiopian family. I have learned so much, about love, privilege, and family, in ways I never could have predicted.

 

National Adoption Awareness Month Brings New Adoptee Voices

Increasingly, adult adoptee voices are being included in National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM), and this year is no exception. Today is the first day of NAAM, and two new resources have launched today.

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Reshma McClintock, an adoptee from India as well as a writer, producer, and subject of the documentary Calcutta Is My Mother, is the creator of Dear Adoption, a new site dedicated to “giving voice to those most affected by adoption: adoptees.” It debuted today, and has three compelling stories by adoptees, with the promise of many more to come. The site also has resources for adoptees (books, art, websites, films) and a section for adoptive parents. I hope the site gets lots of traction and attention.

 

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Also debuting today is Black Anthology: Adult Adoptees Claim Their Space. “A diverse exploration of the black adoptee journey,” the book is a collection of 16 essays by both domestic and international adoptees. from the US and other countries. Ruth McCoy, Ph.D, says in her review that the “writers’ visions, perspectives, and personal reflections truly provide excellent insight and awareness to all who have been personally touched by adoption.” I know several of the writers in the anthology, and look forward to reading everyone’s essay.

 

 

 

Adult Adoptees Speaking “Out of the Fog”

 

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I believe a lot of our lives are spent asleep, and what I’ve been trying to do is hold on to those moments when a little spark cuts through the fog and nudges you. ~Rufus Wainwright (Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans)

How familiar are you with being in the fog or out of the fog, in terms of understanding adoption?

“Out of the Fog” is a new Canadian radio magazine where critical, thoughtful, lived perspectives on adoption are brought to the forefront. It is co-hosted by Kassaye MacDonald, co-founder of  Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, and filmmaker Pascal Huỳnh. The first episode aired this past Friday. It featured Shaaren Pine, whose Washington Post article “Please Don’t Tell Me I’m Lucky to Be Adopted” last year generated a lot of conversation.

I hope “Out of the Fog” also generates a lot of listeners, conversation, and the occasional controversy. Last Friday’s show was a great debut, as the speakers talked about the complexity of growing up as the only adoptee/only person of color, about adoption prevention versus family preservation, about struggles with depression and suicide, about reproductive rights versus reproductive justice. Big important topics. The show airs every first Friday of the month on CKUT 90.3FM at 8:30am EST.

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Friday Harbor, WA (Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans)

“Out of the Fog” is part of an evolving, important perspective on adoption. Betty Jean Lifton, writing in “Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience,” might have been the first to voice the “great sleep” of adoption. In the years since Lifton’s book was published in 1979, the idea of the great sleep has evolved into a fog: the sense that some folks connected with adoption are in a fog, not wanting or able to see the clear, full reality of adoption. Like Lifton, Deanna Doss Shrodes and Laura Dennis are adoptees. In Adoptee Restoration’s blog post “Shaking the Adoption Fog Out of Adoptees,” Laura defines the fog as “that hazy perception that everything about adoption is simple, straight-forward, beautiful, and most importantly, not to be questioned.” First/birth mother Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy provides another thoughtful perspective in “The Birthmother Shift–12 Years in an Adoption Fog.

“Out of the Fog’s next episode will be on November 4, 2016. November is National Adoption Awareness Month. I’m looking forward to that show. Well done.

Be sure to like and follow Out of the Fog on Facebook.