If there was just one thing I could change – ranking #1 on the long list of things that drive me absolutely crazy in adoption – is society’s acceptance of secrets and lies as being inherent to the system and indeed “good” for the parties involved. Normally, this happens in relation to what the adoptee does or doesn’t know about their own beginnings.
I’ve seen this play out with so many adult adoptees. Some don’t discover they’re adopted until well into adulthood. Many times, even when someone knows from birth they were adopted, some element of their truth is either withheld or outright falsified by the parents or adoption facilitators at the time of their adoption.
I cannot overstate the amount of reprocessing an adopted person must undergo when a withheld truth is finally revealed – and the psychological torture of knowing your entire truth exists somewhere (in sealed records or the memories of your birth or adoptive parents) and is purposely being kept from you. It’s almost impossible to give a non-adopted person a true taste of this kind of betrayal, but I’ll give an example with my experience.
My search for my birthmother started after I graduated college. When my adoptive mother heard the news, she revealed that my birthmother said I was conceived through a rape. There was a blathering litany of excuses for withholding the information, including, “The lawyer didn’t believe her, so we didn’t say anything. We never wanted to hurt you… ” When I said I wasn’t nearly as upset over story as I was about her withholding it, she snapped, “You couldn’t have handled it when you were a teenager!”
When I found and met my birthmother, she confirmed that she had been raped stating, “He was an acquaintance but not a romantic interest.” She had reported the incident but never pressed charges. When I asked for a name, she stated she “blotted it” from her memory. When I pointed out the absurdity of that statement, she asked me not to contact her again.
What non-adoptees don’t fully understand is how our personal and family history affects how we view ourselves and our lives. We humans view everything in the context of “story.” The beginning of that story is the foundation of everything we know about ourselves – what happened and the identities of the characters are obvious critical elements of that story. It is psychologically unsettling – and downright unbearable for many of us – to have huge holes in our foundation. Adoptees attempt to fill those holes with what our adoptive parents tell us and sometimes our brains fill in the rest to quell the unstable feeling of not knowing. My childhood concept that I was just an “oops” from two people who loved each other was now replaced with something entirely different. When our foundation changes, we change. The way we view the events of our lives changes.
So for 14 years, I attempted to move on with the few details I knew. It was especially painful when my daughter began to ask about her/our family story and I had to explain why a mother would give her baby away and refuse a relationship with that child.
This interaction with my daughter also stirred up my desire to know the identity of my birth father. I’d heard that some adoptees were able to figure this out through commercial DNA testing. I took three tests and through my various matches was able to nail down the identity of my father. He is deceased, but I have a half-brother, a sister-in-law and two nephews who readily embraced us.
Then came another fun plot twist: My brother produced an entire photo album full of my biological parents together as a couple. My aunt was able to confirm that the whole family knew b-mom and they had planned to get married. My brother’s mother (b-dad’s ex-wife) was able to produce a certificate of her annulment to our father. He’d requested it so he could marry b-mom, a Catholic, in the Church. The annulment was dated August of ’76… she would have been about 3 months pregnant with me. This (along with many other details I won’t drag out here) put me at about 99% certainty that the rape story was bunk.
It was another seismic shift in my foundation. Reprocessing a new reality again. The feeling of betrayal again. The utter lack of respect for my right to know the truth, again. It’s been almost a year since I found my paternal half and though I’m elated, this shift in perspective and the realizations that came with it have taken their toll.
The sad fact is, at 38 years of age, I’ve experienced the bulk (I hope) of my adoption revelations at a young age compared to many others who struggle just to get the names of their biological parents.
Words cannot describe how psychologically taxing it is for adoptees to not have access to our information, and to be downright lied to about our origins. Secrets and lies, especially in closed adoptions, seem to happen more often than truth. I witness it happening again and again to adoptee friends that deserve better. I grow more furious for us as a community every time I hear about an adoptee checking into rehab, or a psych ward, or ending their lives (I don’t doubt the statistic that adoptees are grossly overrepresented in all three scenarios).
The problem with closed records (and society’s secrecy mentality) in adoption is it affords birth and adoptive families the ability – and indeed gives them permission – to live in denial of the truth at the expense of the very person adoption is supposedly intended to serve. The excuse I see most from the liars and secret keepers is they were only doing what they thought was “best” for the adoptee. This is perhaps the most insulting excuse anyone can give for the reason that it is so pathetically transparent. What they really mean is they did what was emotionally convenient for them.
Adding insult to injury is the familial and societal gas-lighting we receive when we’re not complicit in the game. So many people buy into the notion that secrets and lies are inherent to an adoption. How many times have we heard others make excuses for the perpetrator? “She was so traumatized.” “We didn’t want to hurt you.” “It was for your own good.” People are trained to smooth it over with platitudes rather than acknowledge an egregious violation has taken place. Even worse the adoptee, the victim in the situation, is often blamed for disrupting everyone’s false reality.
Think of the last TV drama you watched with a lazy adoption plotline. Secrets and lies create suspense… because our lives are an entertaining novelty, you know. Did every character know the truth except for the adoptee? Did it end with a dramatic revelation? Did the adopted adult comply as if it was perfectly acceptable for other people to conceal the truth of their existence?
Unfortunately, this systematic brainwashing contributes to what people think they know about adoption policy. It was evident the day I testified to the PA House Children & Youth Committee to open adoptees’ original birth certificates and so many responded with fear that birth family secrets may be revealed. It took the last ounce of energy I had not to reply, “So what?”
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, both in government and our personal lives.
“If you’ve experienced something traumatic, keep it a big ol’ secret and pretend it never happened,” said no psychologist ever. So if you’re an adoptive parent or relinquished a child for adoption, you are not helping if you fill that child’s life with secrets and lies. In fact, you’re passing your own dysfunction to the next generation and forcing them to clean up your mess. You may intend to tell the truth at a later time. What happens is you won’t. You’ll get used to the comfort of avoidance. Your child will eventually find out in spite of you and your relationship will be forever damaged.
When the very people you’re supposed to trust most in the world lie about something so critical, it shatters your ability to trust. When other people in the adoptee’s life make excuses for those lies, it’s more than bewildering. All of it disrupts the adoptee’s ability to ever be at peace with their story because they’ll forever question if it is true and complete.
When will society and our families respect us enough to give us our full, unadulterated truth? The mentality, unfortunately, is that we’re all just lucky to be here so we should lie down and accept what our families (and our state governments) determine we should know.