‘THERE’S SOMETHING I’VE BEEN wanting to ask you, and I hope you don’t think I’m prying. Some people don’t like talking about these things, and I will totally understand if you don’t want to. But I was wondering if you got any counselling, any therapy, related to your adoption? I mean, I was assured by Child Welfare you were a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child, but I must admit I had my doubts it was peachy keen all of the time.’
‘Hah! They lied. They just told you what they knew you wanted to hear. I was a very happy kid, yes, but I was not a happy teenager. Oh God, I gave my parents so many grey hairs. Unfortunately our relationship is still strained to this day.’
‘I knew it. Gosh, what’s the point of asking for updates on your child when they’re just going to spin a bunch of bull. Dammit, it makes me so mad! I guess I was always worried about how you were coping, if you were coping. If you had someone to talk to, about some of the things I imagined must be going through your mind.’ She pauses and takes a loud, angry sip of coffee.
‘Well, no, I never had any counselling about being adopted per se. But my folks did send me to see a shrink. Once. It was after I nearly got expelled for taking cigarettes on a school tour in Standard Seven. This chick was a colleague of Dad’s who touted herself as a specialist in treating “troubled teens,” or whatever they like to call it, but when I cottoned on to the fact she didn’t have a frickin’ clue about adoption, I just shut down and refused to go back. What was the point? As far as I was concerned, it was a complete waste of my time and my parents’ money. Like a lifelong teetotaller trying to connect with and counsel a raging alcoholic. What a joke!’
‘Did they not then try and find someone who specialised in adoption for you to talk to? Or perhaps group therapy, where you could speak to other adoptees, people who were in the same boat as you?’
‘So you’ve received no professional counselling on your adoption whatsoever.’
‘Nope. I basically grew up with this big fat elephant in the room. Everything I know about adoption I’ve learnt from books.’
‘Really? Any in particular?’
‘Well, as a kid it was all these sweet little picture books that my folks gave to me, or read to me. ‘Moses in the Bulrushes’ and ‘Mowgli’ and ‘Superman’ type stories. But just over the past year or so, these two great new books aimed at adult adoptees came out. I found them in the library. Someone apparently donated them. The one talks about a primal wound*, and the other about a ghost kingdom**.’
She nods encouragingly.
‘Okay, so the first author believes all adoptees, even those adopted right from birth, retain memories of the separation from our birth mothers, and these memories will have effects on our emotional and psychological wellbeing, right through childhood and into adulthood. She says the bond between a mother and her biological child goes right down to a cellular and spiritual level, and the severing of that bond, even if the child is still a tiny baby, results in a primal wound, a hole in that child’s soul. If that wound is not acknowledged, then the hurt can manifest itself in things like depression, anxiety, genealogical bewilderment, and acting out in self-destructive or anti-social ways.’
‘Genealogical bewilderment,’ you laugh. ‘It’s what happens when there are huge chunks missing from a person’s narrative. For someone like me, who grew up knowing virtually nothing of my past, it can be difficult to form a coherent sense of self.’
‘Got it. Makes perfect sense.’
‘They say that genetic ancestry gives you knowledge about yourself, your heredity. Which in turn gives you knowledge about who you are, your identity. And the knowledge of both heredity and identity are needed for normal psychological development.’
‘Wait, you lost me there. You’re gonna have to slow down a bit.’
‘So, during the teenage years, when everyone around me was finding out who they really are and where they fit into the world, I was trying to do the same. But for me it was a much bigger challenge, because I knew nothing about where I had come from. There was this part of me that was always looking for answers. Regular kids don’t have to worry about that. Everything is right there in front of them, spelled out in black and white. But for me, trying to figure out who I was, trying to form my own identity, was a lot more difficult.’
‘Well, you certainly seem to have a very good sense of self now. And hopefully after today, learning a bit more about your biological roots, you’ll be even more self-aware.’
‘My mom always used to call me self-centred, and perhaps as a teenager I was. But if you think about it, what teenager isn’t?!’ You both laugh. But your laugh masks a lot of pain. It’s taken years of introspection and reading to get to this point, where you’re starting to accept who you are, and understand where you fit in. Thank God for books, for validating your feelings, and letting you know you’re not alone.
‘It seems like after all you’ve been through, you’ve grown a very thick skin.’
‘Oh God, ja. Like a crocodile, haha! Nothing and no-one gets to me anymore.’ That’s not strictly true, but you’ll be damned if you let anyone see the chinks in your armour.
‘Sjoe, you really are a remarkable young woman. But tell me more, about what they say about the ghost kingdom?’
‘Okay, so the other author believes we need to acknowledge that an adoptee, like me, is a child who has not only gained a family, but also lost one — my birth parents, the “hereditary ghosts” whose genetic code is imprinted into every cell of my body. Obviously it’s not just adoptees who have these ghosts, but birth mothers and adoptive parents too. She reckons you are haunted by the ghost of the baby you gave away. And my folks are haunted by the ghost of the biological child they couldn’t have, the abrupt end of the family line, no-one to pass their genes onto.’
‘Isn’t it amazing, the way some people just have a way of putting these things into words,’ she marvels. ‘I mean, I have had these exact same thoughts and feelings, but it was stuff I simply didn’t know how to articulate. It’s such a relief to know these are universal truths for so many of us in the adoption triad. Gosh, how much easier things could have been for you, for me, and your folks, if literature like this had been around, say, five, ten years ago, when we could’ve all really used it.’
‘I’m so glad to hear you are a reader, and you found these books to help you work through things on your own.’
‘Ja. For all her faults, it was actually my mom who instilled in me a love of reading, and books, for which I will always be grateful. She’s a complete bibliophile, so I’ve pretty much grown up around libraries and books.’
‘Well, that is something I am truly indebted to her for. And a passion of yours that I hope will never change. The books you have read and the knowledge and inspiration you have gained can never be taken away from you. By the looks of things, your folks did an outstanding job of raising an incredible young woman. I think the only thing I’m a bit disappointed by is the fact that they didn’t get you more professional help. I firmly believe it could’ve saved you, and them, an awful lot of unnecessary anguish.’
‘Oh geez, I couldn’t agree more. Personally, I think they were worried about a delinquent kid being seen as a bad reflection on them, though. Of their failure to be good parents. I mean, it’s hard enough for parents to admit they don’t know what to do with their own biological problem child, but probably a double whammy for parents of an adopted problem child. They might’ve been scared Child Welfare would come knocking on their door, and then have to deal with nosey social workers breathing down their necks. I guess it was just easier to bury their heads in the sand.’
‘What upsets me is how precious little support Child Welfare offered to adoptees. I mean, for example, what if your parents hadn’t been able to afford private therapy? Surely that is a social service which should be offered for free by a government adoption agency, to all their adoptees?’
‘Ja, it pisses me off, actually. While I know my folks had an ongoing relationship with Child Welfare, who organised adoption seminars where they could interact with other adoptive parents and discuss common issues faced by families, I had no-one the same as me to talk to.’ You pause, gathering your thoughts, tempering your anger. ‘I understand adoption isn’t exactly your first choice, not for most young married couples anyway. Everyone wants to procreate, have a miniature version of themselves running around, to carry on the family line. And then to be told you can’t physically have children together, well, that must suck. Big time. I think it’s something my mom feels quite bitter about, actually. Something she was cheated out of. For someone like me, who doesn’t ever want kids, it’s not a big deal. But for someone who always dreamed of the “husband, two-point-five kids, and white picket fence,” it must be devastating.’
‘Oh goodness, yes. I’ve been blessed by not one, but two healthy babies. I can’t even begin to imagine how awful it must feel not being able to have any of your own. But I’m sorry, that still doesn’t excuse Child Welfare for neglecting to support you, the child, and your wellbeing. It’s disgraceful, really. Each one of us in the adoption triangle needs counselling. We all have complex emotional and psychological issues to deal with. Oh, Charlotte. I am so sorry. Actually, I am angry. At the system, and all of us adults involved in this business, for how we all failed you.’
The word ‘business’ has a sting in its tail. Adoption as a transaction. The child as commodity. An article of trade. Exchanging hands. Both adult parties benefitting in some way. Although Child Welfare markets itself as a non-profit organisation, for all intents and purposes it’s still a business, an agency that facilitates the adoption of humans. Hmmm. Human trafficking and identity theft. You’ve never thought of it like that. But it’s really just a matter of semantics. Geez, that’s quite some start in life you had!
‘There’s something else I’ve always wondered about,’ she continues. ‘I hope you don’t think this presumptuous of me, but I’m really interested to know your thoughts on the old nature versus nurture debate.’
‘About how much of who you are and how you turn out in life is based on genes, and how much of it is down to environment and upbringing?’
‘Well, I have thought about it. A lot, actually. How different I would’ve turned out had I been placed with another family, or stayed with you. Or how different things might’ve been had my parents decided not to tell me I was adopted. And honestly, I can’t say. There really is no way of knowing.’
‘Well, I definitely think it’s better you were told, from a young age, rather than finding out when you were much older, and feeling like you had been lied to for so many years. That would’ve come as an awful shock.’
‘Oh no, totally. I’m glad they did. But by the same token, I think there was way too much unnecessary secrecy. Even if we, you and I, had just been able to exchange the odd letter and photo, through Child Welfare, it would’ve made things so much easier for me.’
‘Oh, Charlotte, me too! I knew if you were anything like me, you probably had a million questions you wanted to ask. Questions I would’ve been only too happy to answer, had they allowed me to. It would’ve made me feel so much better knowing I could’ve aided in softening some of the bumps in the road of growing up, helped to put your mind at ease. And I think this is why I am so upset with the way things were handled. I knew you would be going through some serious inner turmoil. It was one of the main reasons I wanted to reach out to you through Child Welfare, and leave my contact details on file. Let them explain to your adoptive parents, whose identity I didn’t know at that stage, that I was no threat. To reassure them that if or when anybody — they or you — needed any info, I would be there. But I was stone-walled at every turn.’ She pauses. ‘Ag, it’s no use getting stuck in the past. The main thing is we’re both alive and well and here today, talking, face to face! Can you believe it? I keep feeling like I need to pinch myself!’
* Nancy Verrier, The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, Gateway Press, 1993
** Betty Jean Lifton, Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness, BasicBooks, 1994