j. wes unruh

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


“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.

“Over the years I have developed my own problem solving techniques,

most of which rely on listening to voices of authority and then

believing the exact opposite of what they say, and it might help to

keep that in mind while you read this…

“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 and deut. 23:2 were what really bothered


“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


“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


“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.