Figuring Out Our Story

Shannon Gibney

Today’s blog is courtesy of LINK>an essay at Today.com. Shannon Gibney is the author of The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be. Her book is described as A Speculative Memoir of Transracial Adoption. It was published by Dutton just last month, January 2023. Her book details her search and reunion with her birth families, as well as the ongoing ripple effects of adoption intergenerationally. She notes – “For adoptees, figuring out our story requires work — scouring fragments of documents, stories and phone conversations. And sometimes, we still come up short.” As the child of two adoptees that basically had to do the same thing – I can relate and so, I share.

Shannon is a mixed-Black woman who was adopted by a white family. This is commonly referred to as trans-racial adoption. She writes, “In a culture that deeply values personal and family histories that appear to be seamless — at least on the surface — those of us who have little or nothing to go on can feel alienated and alone. Which is why so many adoptees search.” Certainly, for my mom and for my own self, we quickly became aware of the priority of genetic relationship in working with the DNA matching sites – 23 and Me and with Ancestry.

Shannon compares her own search to the more difficult efforts of international adoptees from countries outside of the US. Therefore, she says – As a domestic, mixed-Black transracial adoptee, my search for my birth family and my beginnings was far easier to navigate, although I didn’t know it at the time I began searching. I could say as much myself. My own search turned out to be surprisingly easy and relatively quick (within a year I knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were, something of their stories and had connected with living genetic relatives that I had not known about before).

Her birth mother had given the adoption agency permission to share her identity with Shannon, if she should ever reach out and ask for it. She goes on to describe what happened next – Thus began a long, complicated, on-again and off-again relationship with my birth mother, which ended with her death from a rare cancer in 2014. While initially getting to know her, she told me that she had had a very brief relationship with my birth father and couldn’t give me any real information about him beyond his name. She also warned me that he was “dangerous,” that she didn’t trust him, and that they “were both lost souls” at the time they got together. And, as it turned out, I did not have any biological siblings.

A therapist who specializes in adoption issues helped her to track down information about her birth father, though sad – In 1981, he had died from injuries he had sustained from a high speed police chase in Palo Alto, California. She was 6 years old at the time. She notes his family – “held the blackness that set me a country apart from both my white adoptive and biological families. This was a kind of racial and cultural damage I hadn’t anticipated.”

Yet, also a happy outcome – I eventually tracked down my paternal grandfather, and was even able to talk to him some years before his death. Likewise, conversations and meetings with my biological aunt and uncle on my father’s side have filled in many gaps in my story, and have given me the great gift of a fuller picture of my father. I may have never met him, but I can surmise so many things about him from the little information I do have.

Similarly to Shannon, I have had to accept – Adoptees will never have fully fleshed out stories of our origins, but we do have the conviction that we deserve far more truths than we ever receive, and we have a dogged determination to seek them out. All of this can make us feel frustrated. And yet, I too have discovered “talking to other adoptees we realize that we are actually not alone in our struggles, and that there are strategies and communities we can build to help mitigate the difficulty and disappointment. We also have imaginations that we can use to explore the people and possibilities that brought us into existence and with whom we co-create our identities.”

The Mandalorian

So, I’m not a Star Wars fan. I was once told I reminded a Salon participant at Jean Houston’s home of Yoda. I went looking. I have to admit there was some physical resemblance. LOL

Anyway, today I learned from a Time magazine article about The Last of Us that The Mandalorian had an adoption theme. That I did find interesting (though I am still not going to watch it). I did go looking and found quite an extensive article at Adoption.org LINK>What Does ‘Star Wars’ Have To Do With Adoption? In that article I found some answers.

From the article –

There is also a series in the Star Wars universe that is an amazing picture of foster care in the most untraditional sense. The Mandalorian explores the question of “who is family” when the main character is charged with capturing and eventually protecting a young creature who bears a strong resemblance to Yoda. He is strong in the force, but the Mandalorian is set in a time when being a Jedi is outlawed, and Jedis are killed without impunity. The Mandalorian becomes a makeshift foster father to the little guy who finds all kinds of ways to get into trouble and create drama. The war-hardened Mandalorian grows to love the little guy and does everything in his power to keep him safe and to get him back to “his people.”  At the end of the first season, we see Grogu go off with Luke to learn about the ways of the force, but it probably isn’t the last time we’ll see the little guy. 

Maybe it is just because adoption and foster care are such a huge part of my life that the themes of adoption, found family, and foster care stand out so starkly, but I don’t think so. The entire series falls apart without twins separated at birth. It doesn’t work without friends who didn’t know each other becoming the best allies for one another. The connection they feel is what ties all of the stories together. One of my favorite parts of the movies is that Jedi “become one with the force” when they die. When someone is “one with the force,” they turn invisible but can still interact with the living Jedi. They can still root their family on from beyond the grave. Even though our family is gone, they are still with us. Everything is connected by “the force.”  What a great allegory for the love believers are supposed to share. 

Even if you know nothing about Star Wars, you know about the swords. Almost everyone has swung a plastic, colorful sword and made the noises “swoosh, whoosh, bzzzz” as they “fought.” My adopted kids think it is the best ever. Star Wars and adoption are like popcorn and coke. You don’t need to make the association. However, if you have the popcorn anyway, the coke makes it so. Much. Better. Honestly, though, we couldn’t do this adoption thing without mentors and help from the people around us.  Luke and Rey had big feelings about their past. They felt betrayed by their parents until they knew the truth.

Rey stops to think about the people who loved her. The people who helped shape her into the person she was, the people who cared for her when she didn’t know what to do. And she found her name. She called herself Rey Skywalker. She had no “legal” claim to that name. She hadn’t officially been adopted by Luke or Leia, though Leia ended up being her greatest mentor. She chose to associate herself with the people who loved her when she was struggling and when she triumphed. 

There is much more at the link. The author, Christina Gochnauer, is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places.”

Aaron Judge Adoptee

As a youth and today with mom, Patty

I don’t really follow sports but I do read Time Magazine. Aaron Judge has been named their 2022 Athlete of the Year. He made his 62nd home-run this year. He is biracial and was adopted by white parents. Being a good athlete allowed him to feel accepted, even though his hometown of Linden California, which is rural was very predominantly white – only 0.06% African American. His genetic father is Black and his birth mother is white. He was told that both himself and his older brother who is of Korean descent were adopted when he was 10 years old and began asking questions. Even though he knows some about his original parents, he says that he never had the need to go looking for them, he simply felt at home with his life. He says that he tries not to be like anyone else, “I just try to be who I am.”

At a Major League Baseball website, Aaron says he would not be a New York Yankee today without his mom’s encouragement. He credits her with influencing every decision that he has ever made and has described her as an incredibly caring individual. He says, “The guidance she gave me as a kid growing up, knowing the difference from right and wrong, how to treat people and how to go the extra mile and put in extra work, all that kind of stuff. She’s molded me into the person that I am today.”

Being “the best Aaron Judge” he can be started about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco. His adoptive parents, Patty and Wayne Judge, were recently retired schoolteachers. His older brother, John, also became a teacher. His adoptive parents emphasized education as a priority in their sons lives. Aaron says, “They wanted me to always make sure I put education first and make sure I prioritized everything. If I was going to make plans, stick to them. Make sure I’m on a tight schedule and make sure I don’t miss anything.”

Patty and Wayne adopted Aaron Judge the day after he was born in April 1992. When he was a child, he says he realized “I don’t look like you, Mom. I don’t look like you, Dad. Like, what’s going on here?” that is when they told him that he was adopted. His response was “OK, that’s fine with me. You’re still my mom, the only mom I know. You’re still my dad, the only dad I know.” His reaction to being adopted really reminds me of how my adoptee dad was. He never was curious about his origins and was a good son and very loyal to his adopted parents. Judge often tells his adoptive mother that if it wasn’t for her love and guidance, he wouldn’t be in the position he is now. He gave his 61st home-run baseball to his mom, Patty.

Aaron Judge hugging his mom, Patty.

Romanticized Christmas Adoption

It’s everywhere, not only at this time of year but throughout the year. One adoptee wrote – be aware of your Christmas movie viewing. The orphan/adoption plot line is strong this time of year! you may be looking for Christmas movies to view with your children. I have personally decided to use this as an opportunity to teach my kids about my adoption status, and help empower them to be educated non-adopted members of society, and hopefully avoid their desensitization/romanticized experience of others’ adoptive storylines. Join me in my campaign to keep the trauma-aware population growing! (Yes, I am part of such a campaign !!)

Regarding Christmas Princess on Amazon Prime: a former foster care youth adoptee whose adoptee status is her vehicle to position herself as a Rose Bowl Parade princess. There are flashback scenes to her addicted first mother’s neglect, their home removal, and some overt/horrifically blatant guilt tripping from her adoptive parents. (The adoptee says – I’m not being sensitive…when she is wrestling with her attachment issues and then *surprise* is approached by her birth mother, she tells her adoptive parents about it. Her adoptive dad says “it’s like you don’t appreciate everything we’ve done for you! When will you learn we’re you’re family!” Pretty tough to watch for me and they just gloss over it like that was excellent parenting and she’s the one with the problem. Needless to say, I was triggered – which doesn’t happen all that often for me.)

The adoptee adds this side note – as a kid I had an obsession with orphan stories. (Blogger’s note – it is interesting that I was too but I thought my adoptee parents were orphans when in reality they were not – there were families out there living lives we were unaware of.) I read every tragic book I could find, and was not triggered—only intrigued—by the plethora of stories I found (in my desire to romanticize my situation.) So, I’m not saying don’t let them watch potentially triggering material. I mean, by all means, if you know they have a trigger, for the love of everything, please respect that. Not all kids are able to articulate their reactions, so I’m just saying, as in all good parenting: be alert, be aware, be available to talk it out. Literally pause the movie and say “that was completely out of bounds for him to be guilting her like that. It really rubbed me the wrong way. What do you think?” and follow it up with intentional discussion “why do movie makers seem to gravitate toward adoption stories? What do you think that’s about? How do you feel about that?” or “do you like movies that involve adoption? Do you ever relate to the characters? I find myself sympathetic to the adoptive mom, I don’t want her to feel rejected, but even more so, I find myself feeling protective of the kid. The top priority should be their well-being, right?” Engage engage engage! If they happen to open up to you, please please be encouraging and sympathetic in your response!!! If I had felt free to express all of my curiosity, emotion, feelings of rejection without dismissive “How could you not feel lovable?! We love you SO much!” I would have processed much of my adoption better along the way.

Other themed Christmas movies – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer – the island of misfits, Santa Paws (note – my wife watched it and was surprised it has a foster care theme, with it showing the foster mom as mean and evil.), Elf (Buddy is a late discovery adoptee who learns he is not in fact an elf like he had always believed, despite it being very obvious because of his physical size. The whole movie is about reunion with his father and there are some hard rejection moments in there.), Annabelle’s Christmas Wish (is about a boy who is orphaned and lives with his grandfather. There is holiday magic but also an entire plot about how his wealthy aunt is weaponizing Child Protective Services to take the boy away). There are probably others, this is just a short list offered so far.

From an adoptive parent who adopted from foster care – I’m pretty sensitive when adoption is part of a story line, and always concerned about how my adopted child will feel upon watching movies centered around adoption. But yes, my daughter is very intrigued by adoption stories and it gives us a chance to discuss healthy vs. non-healthy relationships and how no two families are the same. She doesn’t yet know everything that happened to put her into foster care. I appreciate hearing adoptees’ perspectives to know how to better navigate parenting her.

Inclusive Adoption Narrative ?

Short on time today, I googled Christmas Adoptions and found this LINK>5 Holiday and Christmas Movies About Adoption at Adoptions with Love. No personal comments or perspectives today – again no time. Just bringing in the website description.

#2 – The Family Stone

Everett Stone – one of five adult children – brings his girlfriend, Meredith, home to meet the family for Christmas. Nervous and desperate to make a good first impression, Meredith fails to make a positive mark on the family.

One night, around the family table, the uncomfortable vibe in the room comes to a head, when Meredith asks Everett’s brother, Thad, about his forthcoming adoption with boyfriend, Patrick. She asks whether they believe in “nature vs. nurture” in regard to raising a child in a gay household. Questioning herself, Meredith suggests theories that homosexuality may be influenced by one’s home environment. The family works to lighten the conversation and joke that the matriarch, Sybil, had hoped that all three of her sons would grow up to be gay. Meredith questions this statement, suggesting that no parent would really “want that” for their child. Her comments offend Thad and Patrick, and enrage Sybil and family patriarch, Kelly. Sybil and Kelly shout at Meredith, and she runs off from the table feeling awful.

There are many important lessons within this scene. Once Meredith leaves the room, Sybil reminds her son, Thad, how deeply and completely she loves him. Sybil and Kelly are proud of their son. They support his same-sex relationship and are happy to see their child moving toward parenthood and toward the loving choice of adoption.

Meredith did not mean to offend or hurt anyone in the family. She was simply uneducated. She did not understand why her comments were hurtful and how off-base she was in sharing them. This is an important lesson in “listen and learn” when it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ families.

Before the film ends, Thad and Patrick return to Kelly’s house with their adopted child in tow. At the uncomfortable dinner scene, Thad and Patrick are asked whether they have a preference of the race of the child – since they are an interracial couple. They simply answer that they do not care one way or the other. They will love the child no matter the skin color. When the couple arrives with their baby, we see that he is black. This is a great example of a happy and loving transracial adoptive family.

What Is It About Superheroes

My friend, Ande who writes LINK>The Adoption Files wants to explore the topic of adoption and superhero origin stories. Not being familiar with comic book history, I’ll leave it to others but her question intrigued me and led me down a rabbit hole of sorts via google.

Here is a list – Superman (we used to have a costume Superman shirt with the big S for my son Simeon), Spider-Man, Supergirl, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Loki, Black Widow, Perhaps the strangest is the Ninja Turtles (these crime-fighting turtle superheroes. Donatello, Michaelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo are adopted – as baby turtles – by a Japanese rat who discovers they are dripping with a strange ooze before they mutate into human-like turtles. The history of these unique superheroes is about as complex as adoption itself. They’re being raised by a single dad who isn’t even the same species as they are.)

Finally, Iron Man (Tony Stark – my maternal grandmother’s family name !! Yay), So I’ll take Iron Man – Superhero Tony Stark is adopted. Many kids love to dress up as the iconic Marvel superhero, but may not know about his complex family history. Tony’s brother, Arno, is the biological son of Howard and Maria Stark. As Tony later learned, the Starks adopted him as a cover after Arno’s health deteriorated as a baby. The identities of Tony’s birth parents were not revealed for many years. Tony’s birth mother, British Radio DJ Amanda Armstrong, was finally revealed to fans in 2016. The following issue revealed that his birth father was a SHIELD agent code-named Jude. Jude turned out to be a Hydra mole, forcing Amanda to place her baby for adoption.

My list comes from Adoptions with Love – LINK>9 Adopted Superheroes by Nancy Rosenhaus. Which confirms my suspicion that adoptive parents love to take their kids to see these movies as an affirmation of their own personal hero status. I don’t mean to be cruel or cynical but too many stories to confirm that kind of behavior causes me to say this.

Salon had a good article about what appeals to us in these personas titled LINK>We are all superheroes! by Robin S Rosenberg. So, I’ll finish this blog off with a few words about superheroes from that article.

A superhero is challenged by a moral dilemma, physical trial, or both. The superhero triumphs, sometimes learning and growing in the process. The stories generally follow the standard basic plots with which we are familiar. In fact, we may know the form of the story arc even before the story begins. This is especially true of origin stories, which form the bread and butter of superhero films and typically conform to some version of the hero’s journey in which the protagonist is, after some challenges and setbacks, transformed and dedicates his or her life to an altruistic purpose.

People generally enjoy simpler stories more than complex ones. We may prefer our superhero stories to be relatively simple. Their predictable, formulaic tales can also be reassuring: We can allow ourselves to become anxious on behalf of the story’s characters because we know that all will turn out right in the end. A story’s tension is cathartic. We don’t have to worry about getting too devastated.

Good fiction, and good storytelling of any kind, allows us to become immersed in someone else’s world and in doing so provides us with both an escape and emotional engagement. We can lose ourselves and temporarily forget our worries and woes, fears and foes. We also get drawn in to the characters’ world and issues. Stories’ core themes of right versus wrong, personal choice, sacrifice for the greater good, finding purpose and meaning, resonate. I will add – with good reason in a complicated world.

Ending November

National Adoption Awareness Month can mean an adoptee feels heard. Or it can be an opportunity with the spotlight shining on adoption to discuss the trauma of being adopted. Some adoptees prefer to share what they feel are the positive things and people being adopted brought them. Every adoptee has a different story to tell but maybe the greatest relief is knowing there are others out there with the same experiences, that we are not alone. Less than 10 days left in this year’s adoption awareness month.

Mardi Link writes in the Traverse City Record Eagle on Nov 20 2022 – LINK> Happy National Adoption Month – “Being adopted isn’t just for babies, it doesn’t last for a single month and the brief burst of celebratory attention lavished on an institution designed to ‘save’ people like me feels jarring.”

She acknowledges – The press releases, celebrity baby adoption photo spreads and international infant rescue stories leave no space to narrate the lifelong complexity of a system which often provides adoptees with no agency over their own lives. For example, I’ve been on a 30-year mission to obtain every page of my medical, adoption, foster care and genealogical records. I’ve had some success at this mostly because I haven’t stopped asking after being told no.

Mardi notes – As a baby, I spent months in foster care before I was adopted. Somewhere, there are records and I want them. They’re mine. If National Adoption Month was really meant to raise awareness about the lifelong requirements of adoptees, the folks behind this celebration would have developed a mechanism for us to use to access our records.

She affirms – We’re also not going away. I’m still filing Freedom of Information Act requests on myself and I’m still writing polite letters. We have to be polite — we can’t ever appear angry or even conflicted about a system everyone else seems to celebrate.

This is the kind of reality that is an every day occurrence for adoptees – Last month, an Michigan Department of Health and Human Services adoption analyst responded to my latest inquiry with a copy of a typed telephone message delivered to the Children’s Aid Society in December of 1961. “Booth hospital telephoned to report Patricia delivered a baby girl at 8:15 a.m. Birth weight six pounds and seven ounces.” That baby was me. Until last month, I didn’t know what time I was born or what my birthweight was.

In my going nowhere efforts with the state of Virginia where my adoptee mom was born, that is the kind of information I would have liked to have received – the hospital’s name, the time my mom was mom, what she weighed. But alas, no. Not without a court order and that means an expensive legal representative and no guarantee of success. Sometimes, we just have to let some details be unresolved. Like why my grandfather abandoned my grandmother and baby mom. Like why my grandmother was sent away from her family in Tennessee to Virginia to give birth to my mom. When she left Tennessee and when she arrived in Virginia. Where she went to wait out her pregnancy until my mom was born. All I can do is make up stories.

Mardi ends her article with Happy National Adoption month. I question whether happy is the right word to attach to it – unless you are an adoptive parent who got what they wanted – someone else’s baby.

Why?

One of my newest and quickly a favorite, adoptee writers is Tony Corsentino. In this essay, LINK> Wtf Is Wrong with That? he shared the Tweet imaged above. He writes, “I took to Twitter in what might have looked like a fit of pique, though for once I wasn’t piqued.”

Every adopted person who searches for their biological parents could answer – why. His answer ? “I decided I needed to learn the identities of my biological parents because, after being diagnosed with cancer and, soon thereafter, becoming the father of two children, I realized that I was no longer content with telling doctors that I knew nothing about my medical history.” I remember those days myself and both of my adoptee parents could never tell medical professionals about their own medical history. This is one of those inconvenient truth about being adopted in a closed, sealed record type of adoption. 

“All men by nature desire to know.” ~ Aristotle I certainly wanted to know, my mom certainly wanted to know, my dad claimed he didn’t. He cautioned my mom against opening a can of worms. I think he was afraid to know.

Tony notes that this knowledge is forbidden. Certainly, my mom tried and was forbidden to know by the state of Tennessee. Tony notes, “I decided, somewhat in the manner of Huckleberry Finn, that if I was courting damnation to do this thing, then so be it, let me be damned.” You have to love that spunk !!

I remember long ago learning not to ask questions but to let people tell me what they wanted me to know on their own initiative. Tony says, “Questions are not obnoxious or offensive in content, but as asked in particular contexts. Imagine being asked if you cheat on your partner, or why you don’t have children. If you and I are more or less strangers and I put those questions to you out of the blue, you would of course be right to protest that it is none of my bloody business.”

Tony suggests that “question intrudes on a zone of privacy that people should respect. There may be no knowing what pain lies underneath an adopted person’s relation to the decision to search, or not to. To ask the question could be a trigger. Compare this to ‘Why did you terminate your pregnancy?’ or, of course, ‘Why did you relinquish your child for adoption?’ Whole histories of hurt might have preceded, and culminated in, these decisions.”

He goes on to share his thoughts about justice and power –

He adds – “To the extent that severance causes such harms, and that discovering one’s genealogical identity can help (or even be essential) to assuage these harms, then we can give real content to the idea of needing to know our genealogical identities.” Then adds, “part of what I was suggesting in these tweets is that we must separate needing to know from deserving to know.” ie Normative ideas grounded in our overall picture of human dignity and freedom.

He concludes by saying “if people better understood how deeply adoptees like myself are committed to reclaiming our moral dignity, and how central to that dignity the question of knowing really is (and is it really that difficult to see?), then we would not need to practice so much forbearance.”

Tony did have more to say than I have shared. The link is at the beginning of this blog if you care to read it all.

A Lot Of Anger

Today’s story – She is 13 years old. She has reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and takes it out on the whole family. She is my cousin’s child, so also my cousin. She is placed here along with her 2 other sisters. She is triggered by her younger sister’s happiness in being here and how we are one big happy family but she doesn’t feel a part of that.

An interesting suggestion was this one – Therapeutic Boxing. This is a style of depth psychotherapy using boxing skills to bring subconscious and unconscious material to the conscious mind, an unconventional style of mindfulness to look beneath the surface of behaviors. Also contact sports to help channel the anger into a positive. Some recommendations included kickboxing and Krav Maga (an Israeli martial art developed for the defense forces, it is derived from a combination of techniques used in aikido, judo, karate, boxing, savate and wrestling. It is known for its focus on real-world situations and its extreme efficiency) and rugby.

With adoptees – it is a given to seek out an adoption trauma informed therapist. Managing how an adoptee navigates trauma is a life-long road with peaks and valleys. Another type – Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) – a type of talk therapy for people who experience emotions very intensely. Evidence suggests that DBT can be useful in treating mood disorders and suicidal ideation, as well as for changing behavioral patterns such as self-harm and substance use. There is also Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a structured, goal-oriented type of talk therapy. There are also rage rooms, also known as smash rooms or anger rooms, where people can vent their rage by destroying objects. Results according to experts appear mixed. One suggested that her oldest (age 10) loves to break large blocks of ice. There’s a lot of sensory input with that activity and it works wonders! One had a high school art teacher that always had old clay projects she could smash into the dumpster. She found that a very satisfying and helpful release. Another suggests group therapy because having other people who can relate makes some feel less alone with their situation. There are so many forms, yet another is Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP). Some target difficulties in attachment and some difficulties in intersubjectivity, finding it hard to give and take in relationships.

There are activities one can apply to develop coping skills and emotional regulation skills. Some examples include – Relaxation techniques: deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle technique. Also taking a quiet bath in the dark, being alone but intentional about where and how one spends that time, eliminating all other distractions. Exercise; dancing, talking a walk, lifting weights. Talking with someone you trust. Engaging in art; drawing, coloring, painting, photography, playing a musical instrument.  Journal, then later burn it into ashes. Also, scream into a pillow. 

For the time being validate her anger. Acknowledge that you couldn’t even imagine what she is going through and apologize to her. Tell her that she’s welcome to be a part of that family bond, whenever she’s ready, and to take her time. And tell her until then, you can be a friend – if she let’s you. Some adoptees find only adulthood brings the freedom they need to cease being so angry.