superstitions and grand narratives in my adoption experience

We are all individuals, and our interests and desires are formed as much by our biology as our experiences. Those who are raised with their biological parents find corresponding interests driven by genetic similarities, something often completely missing from the equation within an adoptive family setting.

When there are no shared interests within a family dynamic, there is no support to develop those interests.

At best, I would be left on my own to engage with those things I found interesting. In many cases, I was punished for my interests, or actively prevented from pursuing them. I learned to hide what I was reading, I developed speed-reading unintentionally along the way, my constant state of near panic, a adolescent-long hyper-vigilant state of mind, drove this adaptation.

But it also left me convinced that I was inherently flawed, broken, and unvalued. My inner world was awash in self-erasure, fantasies of some distant rescue operation underway to recover me from my life and bring me back to my true parents. And when that rescue never came, the feelings of hopelessness grew ever stronger-a mental anguish that I could only relieve with physical self-harm. Physical pain washed away the emotional pain, for an hour or so. This pursuit of pain as a reliever of anxious thoughts, racing thoughts, and as a way to reduce panic continues throughout my life.

It’s an artifact of my anxieties, as much as the physical symptoms of stress. But it’s not the only psychological factor. I also find that it is very difficult to remain on conscious track of a concern, related to my adoption. Grueling, it can be to write about this – I am more than a subjective subject, I am somewhat damaged.

The scars from my cuttings are mostly faded. I can make out the brandings in good light, and the largest of the scars is plainly visible on my skin if you know where to look. But the invisible scars, the memories that block other memories, the fictional what-ifs that play out in my head whenever I try to understand myself – these have caused significant cognitive impairments at moments. I’ve spent many hours unwilling to move from my bed, convinced the world was made of pain and rejection. My identity was a mask, a layer that allowed me to move through a certain space, so long as I never spoke my thoughts or expressed my interests. I grew up becoming a polytheist within a cloistered monotheistic culture. My eventual questioning of my faith proceeded from the complicated notions of sin, lying, identity, and obeying God’s commandments, as my family expressed those instructions.

A dozen years ago, I wrote the following in an email to a member of my biological family:

“I didn’t start looking for nancy until my parents told me
that a paralegal, a lawyer’s aide, had dressed as if she’d given birth
to me and was wheeled out of the hospital in a wheelchair with me in
her arms, something I was told around my twenty-fourth birthday. I’ve
always felt out of place, out of time… like I was filling in,
handed a script and some clothes that didn’t fit.. But being told I
was more or less rushed out of a hospital under creative misdirection
at birth tends to push an already romantic mind into some fantastic
territory.

“Adding fuel to the fire, my decree of adoption was never obtained by
my adoptive parents until the middle of last year, and when I did
finally see it, I find that my birthdate was left blank. I kinda feel
like I’m metaphorically wandering around with a missing limb, or a
gapping hole where my spleen should be

“I am quite curious about my father now. I wouldn’t suppose you’d be
familiar with the japanese cartoon Inuyasha… probably not. Growing
up adopted, cultural forms are not easily discarded: adoptees are
routinely discovering their biological fathers are somehow warped
(movies like Flirting with Disaster, or the Star Wars Trilogy) or the
adoptee is somehow seriously unstuck from the reality of hir
surroundings (like The Truman Show, or The Ring.)”

Looking back now on this correspondence, I am struck by the fact that even then I relied on filmic encoding to express roadmaps of empathy for my internal state. This need to connect emotionally is overwhelming, and it is the films I listed, along with many more that have come out since then, that provide touchstones for those not adopted, or considering adoption, to understand complexity of experience and how adoptees may or may not cope with their own personal truths. In that same chain of correspondence, I elaborated on my life experience:

“I was raised, as you surmised, in a virulently
fundamental home. My father, full-blooded german mennonite brethren,
has always been involved with church leadership, starting with the
baptist church we attended in twin falls. My mother was raised
nominally catholic, but considered herself amoral until she started
attending a baptist church with my father. It wasn’t the same church
the Harpers attended in Twin Falls, but shared a similar view of
infallibility re: the king james red letter version of the bible.

“It is fair to say that I’m still not fully certain my adoptive parents
are who they say they are, and there were moments in my life where I
felt that I was being watched and my life scripted according to some
secret cabal’s whims. I’ve always felt watched, and when I saw the
movie The Truman Show for the first time I cried for nearly an hour.
I don’t know if my parents really believe what they say they believe,
partly because their worldview is so wildly divergent from my own that
I find it hard to find safe territory for just idle conversation.

“As I grew up and came to understand the implications of the various
teachings, and began arguing the various points of theology in class
and church, I became more and more disenchanted with monotheism in
general. At first I stated repeatedly that I didn’t have any problems
with christianity if they’d just get rid of everything Paul wrote and
they stopped printing the old testament, but over time I realized that
the doctrine of evangelism was what really bothered
me.

“Gradually I came to see the history of monotheistic culture as one of
subjugation of indigenous people, and the systematic eradication of
sustainable communities in a quest to find some endpoint to the
timeline where god will be summoned to clean up the mess. Depression,
paranoia, and a flattening of affect accompanied this crisis of faith.

“Attempting to stake out this philosophical ground in the face of
adversity from my parents and peer group was more than simply
rebelling. I was reacting to the cultural attitude towards the Iraq
war by that point, utterly convinced that the united states
administration had been co-opted by this fundamentalist current
determined to bring about a fulfillment of prophecy simply to find out
if they could summon god by wreaking enough havoc on the plains of
megiddo.

“Rather than set out in search of alternate beliefs, I tried very hard
to attain a state of aggravated agnosticism, where I tried to will
myself to stop believing in anything – instead to examine the
psychological structure of belief. This lead to a very long
fascination with a branch of occult logic called chaos magic, and this
is also where my story gets downright full of reasons for any
card-carrying fundamentalist to ban me from their doorstep. Today I
find a lot of comfort and clarity from taoist, buddhist, and shinto
concepts, but I don’t adhere to any espoused doctrine. Then, at age
16, I was reading everything I could find related even obliquely to
the history of occult secret societies, from the OTO, skull & bones,
and the freemasons to the more obscure groups, like p2, the order of
the nine angles, etc. Anything that sought to keep itself secret
fascinated me.

“Admittedly, this obsession with hidden lore was a manifestation of
repression, as I hadn’t actively confronted the fact of my adoption.
When my parents had me placed in a christian mental hospital in texas,
it wasn’t because I appeared depressed, or had acted out in some way,
but because they searched my room and found my books on shamanism,
tarot, and runes. When the christian doctor interviewed me, he never
brought up the subject of adoption in the entire seven weeks I was
there, but instead informed me I was there because of demonic
influence.

“Over the years I’ve found humor in the fact that I was put in a mental
hospital not because I thought I was experiencing demonic attack, but
because my parents and psychiatrist thought I was experiencing a
demonic attack. When people in the west and east coast express
amazement over the culture of the midwest, I often use this experience
to illustrate the current state of psychiatric medicine.”

The Harpers I reference there, and Nancy, whom I reference earlier, are my biological family. I learned that when I was seven my real grandmother identified me to the rest of her family. My identity within the myth of the “happy adoptee” was secure as a way to help cover over the trauma they had experienced as a family. As my interest in “the occult” grew, they became increasingly obsessed with the notion of a generational curse, passed on to me by whomever my biological father had been.

Ultimately, I survived this breakdown of narrative and system of superstitions, but it was not without scars.

Lies, liars, and living as fiction

My adoptive mother told me on the way to church one morning that when a ewe dies and isn’t able to take care of a lamb, the sheepherder will put the wool from the lamb’s real mother on another ewe, so that the lamb will be adopted by that new ewe. I was four or five years old. This was the first differentiation I can remember, this was how it was first relayed. Pinning down a memory that longs to be repressed is a quiet victory in the noise that is my mind. When I push to recall thoughts I had, or instances where the awareness that there were others out there who knew me, who knew I was alive and living alongside their own social circles broke into my world, I was somehow repressing that knowledge and it manifested as increasingly self-destructive patterns and paranoid moments.

I later learned this myth of sheep was inherently flawed, just another lie piled upon a lifetime of deceit.

When I was at the end of sixth grade, attending Twin Falls Christian Academy, there was a book fair. The parent church of the Christian school was Grace Baptist Church, and the church turned out to support the book fair, raising money for the new gymnasium that had been built behind the church, expanding the classrooms for the school. I was at a table filled with books, and my maternal grandmother approached me, clearly struck by my appearance. She asked me what books I liked, and I tolder her I was obsessed with Encyclopedia Brown. I may also have mentioned Star Trek, of which I was a bit of an evangelist at the time. She started to say something, then left abruptly. I remember she asked me if I knew who she was, and I felt immediately like I should know. She never told me who she was, just turned and left. I remember turning to someone next to me and asking who she was, and not getting a reply.

I remember this sensation, this moment, this clear longing to recall, most keenly when I rewatch the 1998 film “The Truman Show,” and the scenes of people trying to wake Truman up to his constructed reality play out. Looking back, I feel as if my life was designed to play out as a performance for that family whose presence I somehow escaped.

Years later I learned from my biological mother’s brother’s wife that my biological grandmother did indeed approach me, that she was aware that I was her grandson, and that I was attending Christian school in the same church that had arranged for my private adoption in early 1974.

As I learned more about the circumstances around my adoption, I realized that the details of my life were known by a significant number of adults in my world. My birth was a secret kept not only by the state of Idaho in a formal way, but also something planned by two pastors in defiance of the desires of my birth mother, with the assistance of a family doctor, whom I am beginning to suspect may have also been related to my biological father.

A pastor at my parent’s Tyler Street Baptist Church had been contacted by a pastor at Grace Baptist Church, where I later went to school, looking for a young couple who might want to adopt. Two other men were involved, my birth mother’s doctor who pushed her to give up her baby, and my adoptive parent’s lawyer, who seems to have overlooked getting all the appropriate signatures on my final decree of adoption.

I know now that my life, at least through the age of fourteen when I was living in Twin Falls, was constructed primarily to keep me in the dark regarding my real family, and that religious authority was used to override my birth mother’s own desires, has led me into some rather absurd theories about my importance and purpose. There is a kind of conspiracy around my birth, secrecy and lies that keep me from connecting to my actual heritage. But DNA testing does route me entirely around those legal and social barriers, DNA testing and the passage of time. Stories become less dear, people who were responsible for the erasure of identity pass on, and their offspring are likely as curious as I am. DNA testing opens up all kinds of possibilities that were never foreseen when the adoptions were taking place and I had been sealed away.

Adoption’s history is a conspiracy of the dead, of ideological bias, of the past. A conspiracy that occurred in countless ways over the long history of the United States of America, to countless babies and children. I am one of thousands who were adopted and were sealed away from their truth by Idaho’s laws developed to disrupt and obfuscate. Proving that something untoward occurred, proving that my mother was coerced into relinquishing me to the care of strangers at the insistence of Baptist pastors and a family doctor seems impossible now, forty-five years from the date that this event took place. But it is the truth, and I finally figured it all out. And at the end of the day, it is only I who care enough to have figured it out.

And yet, it was an injustice.

Reading, writing, facebook, irreality & twitter…

Back when I was young it seemed like I lived within books, within libraries, within spaces where books were venerated – the nooks in friends homes, awash in comics, or buried in magazines in the corners of couches, while adults discussed television, or news, or weather. I would read voraciously, rather than eat. I would read while I rode my bicycle, rather than watch the road. I would read books to hide other books I wasn’t supposed to read, like Cliver Barker’s Imajica. I read the entire children’s section in the Twin Falls Public Library by the time I was ten, which unlocked the adult library for me. Having an adult library card at the age of ten allowed me to start discovering reading material that opened my world up in ways my adoptive parents were unable to anticipate.

But as I aged, reading faded. This isn’t entirely true, I began tweeting. My reading time, when I used to read books, became replaced with tweeting time, which was a kind of incessant search–a search for something to distract me momentarily from the search that always consumed my passive thoughts. A search for who I was, or at least, how I fit into the world. Reading was searching, and I read fast.

By my late thirties I read less and less for pleasure, unless it was for a purpose, or discovery. A few authors could get me to stop my scrolling on Twitter for a while, but I always went back to Twitter. Live breaking chat from around the world is an incredibly dynamic experience, and the earliest years of Twitter provided a lot of different ways to play with the service. It was a consuming hobby.

My speed of reading never faded, but the desire to read escapism left and my desire to search, understand, and uncover took over. Perhaps I found it harder to listen to the insights and daydreams of others because the noise inside my own mind was so unsettled. Ultimately I found that only a few authors had the density to appeal to me, and the pain, and understanding of pain, that I needed to read at the time. My hope is that in finding a way to finally get my own experiences into print I can return to my childhood love of reading.

I have also grown weary of social media. When I first joined Irreality in 2005, no one had seen anything like it online, and the small community that used the service was insular but inclusive, and the features, while server-intensive, implied a utopian, self-correcting, self-improving social space could be maintained online that gave users the feedback they desired while allowing for customizations that expressed each user’s individuality at the granular level. That online platform failed, and it has always felt like a high-water mark in my experience of online community building. That its failure was concurrent with the rise of Facebook, with all of it’s flaws, only underscores what the internet lost with its passing.

I’m happy to leave social spaces entirely, wander off into the analog world and wash my hands of the digital spaces. I came to the internet from offline computing in the very last months of the 1980s, and I have a very clear memory of realizing, sometime in 1994, that if I sat in front of an online computer for long enough I would figure out who my parents are… that somehow it would happen.

There are many, many aspects of being a person I feel I sacrificed along the way to pursue this seemingly insane quest, but having completed at least the primary arc of the journey, I cannot think of any other way I could have spent my life that would have been as satisfying.

The image on this post is a section from the journal I’m now editing and drafting into a book-length manuscript. After I finished writing this long-hand, my osteoarthritis at the base of my right thumb became so pronounced that I’ve now had the trapezium removed from that hand and my thumb tied to my finger with a tendon harvested from my forearm. I’ve relearned how to use my right hand, and I’ll use it to finish this book. I’m one of the adoptees who went through hell and came out the other side with a few scars, a missing bone or two, and a fierce determination to use my story, my experience to help prevent trauma to other adoptees, if at all possible.

On sending in DNA as an adoptee…

Focus on any given nugget of information long enough and eventually an over-active mind will link and loop in all manner of false flags and mixed signals, creating conspiracy theories that fall apart under logical scrutiny. One can only teeter out on the edge of “what if” for so long before all manner of belief becomes malleable, everything becomes suspect. I sought fulcrums, constant consequences, worlds where stability and reproduction manifested according to rules I could understand. I was drawn to web layout and presentation because of these principles, but that’s a sort of byproduct of my need to have mastered principles of reproduction, however secondary that may be to rebirthing myself on my own terms, which is the underlying drive.

Staying conscious of these kinds of dark psychological structures is exactly the same kind of muscle it takes to keep a foot elevated for days after a surgery. The trauma that is preverbal, locked behind a fog of false and non-memory, exists as a shaking, a fist clenched through my lower spine. Frozen trauma, frozen time, anchored there at my core. Navigating that, breathing through that sensation, means being awake but distant, disassociated from body, almost back and above the body my consciousness is riding. I am an adopted person… by negating all of my otherness as “adoptee” I am isolating myself within a tiny community that lacks central cohesion. As a human being, conscious of my own relative privilege, it’s inherently disturbing to think that I could swamp out more eloquent, less visible adoptees who have stridently more urgent stories to tell, seeking their histories for urgent medical needs, a kidney, perhaps, bone marrow, a rare blood type… or any of a thousand countless number of other reasons.

Still, that is part of why I sent out the DNA kit to a sketchy startup in Texas. I have “nothing” itself to lose. I must lose this “lack of knowing” if you will… the missing elements. Every bit I lock into place provides a bit more stability, a sense of knowing self, even if its not true knowledge… bits that help me guess what might come next. Heart trouble? Diabetes? ALS? Dementia? How will it end, should I live out my days without an accident or violent end, unlike so many other adoptees? WIll it be cancer? Would we have “caught it sooner” if I knew my biological father’s whole family had a history of “it,” whatever “it” might be?

Some multiverses are longer-lived-in than others, for adoptees. Doing DNA testing collapses those multiverses into a result – a thread, an answer. Or at least, data of some sort. There are all sorts of holes and gaps in these webs of life that the services are mapping with our spit and shreds of skin cells. The fact that adoptees can use DNA services to route around laws designed to prevent families from reuniting is a bug, not a feature of these services. It’s an overlooked end-run around an abusive legal situation.

But DNA is only so much, it’s a piece of the puzzle of the adoptee, a part. It’s not the whole – the searching, the struggle to search, the early awareness, the late discovery rage, all of this is a set of experiences that are unique to the adoptee. My experience, being both unique and bounded by privilege, is inherently normalized by similar yet unique experiences of other adoptees. I am understood and understand people who were adopted or grew up within foster care. I am adopted, but I self-identify as an adoptee.

I am an adoptee because it is my tribe, as opposed to Irish, or Swedish, or Spanish, or British or French or German. I’m a white cis-het adoptee, a foundling, a disconnected changeling too traumatized to cry when I was first found. I was a cuckoo who outgrew his early murderous instincts by the age of three, after which my adoptive parents got themselves another traumatized adoptee, who served as my sister in family photos. We grew close in retrospect, and played for a long time together until the move to Kansas. Kansas broke apart my adoptive sister and I, and I am lucky we have repaired our relationship only recently.

On a related note, I am beginning to walk again.

The image for this post is the furies, who personify the rage of the dead in Greek myth as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, in 1862.

Between Moses and Oedipus Rex…

My decision to move across the Midwest from Wichita to Denver in the last few weeks of 1996 were precisely because I wanted to go “off the grid” and slip away from any possible handlers that might be in my life. I felt as if I could slip out from their overview by leaving Kansas. Later, I would again act on this anxiety when I arranged to move from Wichita to Troy, NY a decade later. In both cases my world in Wichita felt uncomfortable, my nest too tight. I had outgrown the egg and sought to crack its shell.

Collective worship in religious settings put me in a panic. I found the zeal in those around me suspect and performative. I became increasingly convinced that I was an experiment, and that those around me, my adoptive parents, the therapists they chose for me, the psychiatrists they recommended, were all attempting to control my actions. In a sense, it was a strictly provable theorem, and I ultimately recovered equilibrium after removing myself from the sphere of influence of my adoptive parents.

Each time I did this my lot in life did significantly improve, and I’m certain they were the right decisions. I felt drawn to the choices, like there were omens meant for my eyes that led me to make the narrowest of choices across a weirdly diasporadical route through all the regions of the United States. I have a deep appreciation for the country, and the people that I’ve met in every region. This country’s greatest untapped resource is empathy. My fears and paranoia were founded on a perspective poured inward, focused on the “primal wound” that N. Verrier delineates. Recovering from being an adoptee isn’t possible, it’s a legal designation, and I can’t undo it, or ignore it. Recovering means showing up, engaging, looking up. Forced, relentless optimism, in the face of the absurdity of life.

Now, I’m no longer convinced I was under constant surveillance. I realize that much of what I felt was displaced rage, an unending scream, buried behind my silent, infant mask I assumed at birth. As an adoptee, I feel I have always had a life-long infection, a buried, festering sore, at the breaking point where identity and the self in relation to the world index, the nexus where I meet others. Bridging that chasm means having a vision of what is possible. The bridge must be precise, but the chasm is itself unchartable. Adoptees are all left, more or less, with this bridge to construct, on their own, from their side of the canyon. I feel as if I achieved an impossible task, bridged an impossible abyss, I’ve solved a riddle that had been at the back of my brain, occupying all of my subconscious processes, for decades. Now I’ve begun clearing out that space, using it to do more, be more aware, more centered around my friends and family. I don’t feel rushed, or as if my time is misspent, that I could be doing more, somehow, to answer these questions.

Adoptees are never “the good adoptee” all the time, we are all afflicted with some residue from our pasts. I am no expert on what families are healthy and which are troubled. All I know is my own experience and the layers of pain I’ve navigated to understand what affected me most directly. More importantly, the roles I see played out in fiction, that I’m tagging in these films, are never the totality of one’s life. I found great resonance in the stories of Luke Skywalker finding his ancestral narrative come to completion over the course of the various Star Wars films, and I found a great deal of empathy for the stories played out in The Truman Show and Flirting With Disaster. I do not necessarily think I am caught in a horror film, or even a drama. Life as an adoptee, particularly once I uncovered the central confusion around my identities, began to feel more like a farce. My fears were unfounded, my anxieties misplaced. I have trauma, yes, but no more or less than any other child growing in that world, there at that time. To be at peace with the life I led, and instead mourn the relationships I might have had, did have, perchance, in some universe next door, that is where I land. That, and a deep conviction that relentless optimism is the only flame strong enough to keep alive hope.

When I left the house of Jerry and Karen the first time, soon after I returned from visiting Idaho, I felt adrift and aimless. I did not have a direction, and was instead led and driven by my neurosis and my fears, led from opportunity and shielded by privilege in a world that I felt was actively hostile. I lived in the cheapest apartment I could find within walking distance of the gas station where I worked third shift. I felt like I presented such a clearly destitute target that no one would bother me when I walked through the light industrial area alongside highway 54, in summer of ’93. It was a two mile walk or more, and I maintained the pace for several weeks before I encountered an ex-classmate who needed a place to live, but had a car. I had a bed, and I split it in half, taking the box spring and giving him the mattress. Without him there, I knew it was a matter of time before I’d have had someone break into my studio apartment. As it was, I was evicted and he was picked up by a bondsman by the end of summer, but at least we both somehow survived.

What I do know is that my survival is luck. That there are many people who see their family tree as a stump in the yard. Even worse, the current political climate means all past bureaucratic determinations are prone to revisitations. Adoptees from overseas and across the north and south borders are facing deportation in some cases. Identity erased, these discrepancies aren’t taken into account as cases for additional empathy by federal agencies. Instead, the tendency recently has been to assertively enforce deportation. I can’t imagine the degree of mental stress an adoptee would feel being deported to a country they likely already have conflicting emotions about, and then being banished from the land where they’d been led to believe they were part of a family. The stories I’ve read about these “bad adoptees”-adoptees so without standing in our country that they have been rejected by the federal government as even being worthy of citizenship, often are strangely Kafka-esque. They read like absurdist fiction, struggling to integrate into a country they were taken from… Phillip Clay only one of many suicides as a result. My politics are shaped by these attitudes about identity, particularly when identity is wielded as a weaponizing force.

Throughout my life I have heard that the greatest “sin” of the liberals was that they “played identity politics” –a statement that I heard throughout my teens. My extended family was avid listeners of Rush Limbaugh. The only periodical that my adoptive father received was the “Conservative Chronicle,” a weekly compendium of articles, penned by a deep roster of conservative columnists and editorial cartoonists. That my adoptive father would use this phrase whenever he talked about politicians is not surprising, but the frequency by which I recall it being brought up led me to think about identity politics in a way that related to my own sense of identity. I started to see that expressing an identity could be a political act. I believe identity is the essence of representation, for example. I struggle to articulate my identity as an adoptee because my experience is Nothing and I speak from Nowhere. Or I did – all adoptees who are searching without answers are de facto voices from the void. I spoke from that place years ago, I sent my howls moonward, seeking others of my ilk. To be from nothing, and named nothing, and then overlayed–this is all dramatic fiction. But it is also how I play my identity politics out–I am a ghost, a mask, a thorn in amidst the “Blessing” that is the “adopted child”–I and all those other bad adoptees are the voice accomplice within a shadow cast by a myth. I have always felt that I exist somewhere between Moses and Oedipus Rex, and it didn’t end well for either of them…