(Excerpt from my memoir-in-progress)
With every adoption, there is a story, and then there is the story under the story.
I was born, relinquished, and placed for adoption in 1970, a time when secrecy reigned and pregnancy out of wedlock brought shame upon a young woman and her family. My mother was only nineteen years old at the time she conceived me. When her parents found out, they rushed her off to a maternity home in another town, while everyone else was told that she was away for the summer on a nannying gig. Her pregnancy was kept hidden even from her own brothers.
The day after my mother gave birth to me, she held me for an authorized ten minutes, then kissed me good bye. Upon her return home, no one in the family spoke a word about me again for decades. Nor did I have any access to identifying information about her or my father until DNA testing provided me with a viable workaround almost fifty years later. In the meantime, we were worlds apart.
When you imagine an adoption like mine, what do you see? A newborn relinquished by its mother and given to a hopeful, expectant couple eager to raise this infant as their own? Perhaps there are care facilities or foster homes and all manner of social work and legal procedures along the way, and all the complexities behind the decisions that had to be made to make this exchange possible. But the basic story typically focuses on relationships. More specifically, the story focuses on the relationships between the adoptive parents and the adopted child, with the biological mother and family fading into the background.
But who is this adopted child, and what are the stories we tell ourselves to make this exchange appear benign, something relatively easily woven into the fabric of relationships we call family? Is the human organism really as interchangeable and resilient as this, to be uprooted from our biological milieu when we are at our most vulnerable, without incurring significant harm?
Clearly, from the perspective of the adopted child, the process of relinquishment and adoption is not so simple, or sanitized. But given that most of us were adopted as infants, before we had the capacities of a differentiated sense of self and reflective thought and language to name and recall what happened to us, we are often at a loss to tell the story from our own experience.
We lose the thread of the story for two reasons. First, we have lost the thread’s origins. To interrupt a story at its very beginnings and graft it onto another story makes it impossible to follow the story’s original trajectory or grasp its meaning. Without a beginning, a story loses its coherence and intelligibility. Secondly, as adoptees, we have lived our whole lives inside a story other people have imposed upon us. We receive a story from outside ourselves and internalize it as our own.
In contrast, for a child raised by its biological family, the family itself holds the thread of the story in its full continuity for the child, with no break, gap, or interruption. Ideally, living with biologically family insures harmony between the stories the child receives, and the child’s history, inner life, and biological knowing, even through experiences of serious loss.
Many adoptees were told as children, for instance, that we were chosen, that our relationships to our adoptive parents are special and unique for this reason. But already the cracks in this story start to appear. Who, after all, chose whom, and who didn’t have a choice? Was there no organic matrix in which we intrinsically belong simply because of who we are? To speak of choice conceals that the adopted child had to be severed from this original belonging in order for a choice to be made in the first place. And choice, as an act of will, can be revoked, is not intrinsic, and has no ground apart from the will of the one who chooses. No wonder so many of us live with a terrible fear of abandonment.
In my case, my first adoptive mother did in fact revoke her choice when she relinquished me and my younger adoptive sister, Robyn, when I was nine years old and Robyn was five. The story I received from outside myself, that contradicted my biology and pre-adoption history, shattered into a million pieces, and me along with it. Who was I, then, irrevocably separated from my origins and now bereft of the fiction others had mirrored to me, that I was Mary Ann and David’s child? I had no intrinsic identity or relationships to call my own, no original self to fall back on, no family at all. The naked reality of the erasure of my first relinquishment swallowed me whole in the second: as an adopted child, I was no one apart from who others told me I was, and now I was no one at all.
My body and mind were treated as a blank slate all over again, at the disposal of others’ picking and choosing, to be scrubbed clean and written and rewritten upon at others’ will. To name this truth about adoption as I have lived it is the first step in learning to tell the story under the story—the story from the perspective of my own embodied experience. After all, in spite of the ruptures I endured, my body has lived one whole, unbroken life from my mother’s womb to the present. My body remembers even what my mind cannot recall. My body has a story to tell.
Our second set of adoptive parents immediately received Robyn and me together into their home. And yet it is the space between—after the first adoption story had been erased but before the second was written—that haunts me to this day. In this liminal space, which I call the Nothing Place, I am an in-between person. I live at the threshold of the annihilating dislocation I suffered as an infant, when I was torn from the primal symphony that sung to me of my place in the world, and the arbitrary fictions adoption imposed on and then withdrew from me.
In the Nothing Place, I have no story of my own that connects me to the world and other people, nor can I return to my origins or inhabit other people’s stories. The best I can do is to try to adapt, forever an imposter, an outsider looking in. Here, the truest thing I know is the void left in the wake of being taken from my mother when she was still a universe to me, before I could comprehend “separate,” before I could draw a mental boundary that distinguished self from other, my body from her body.
This is ground zero, where I lost everything, a fracture that plunged me into an abyss, floating, adrift, with no sense of self or relationship, no orientation or tether to anything at all. No universe. No mother. No me. This is where I returned as my heart and mind metabolized the catastrophe of my second relinquishment and adoption. This is where the story under the story begins, and thus my search for self, belonging, wholeness, meaning, truth.